Sermon 10/27/2019: Meeting God in the Temple

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Sermon by Jennifer Davis Sensenig on II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

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TLC:  A Meeting Place with God

Every year from the time I was in 3rd grade through 9th grade I spent a week at Trout Lake Camp in the summer.  Trout Lake Camp:  a meeting place with God.  This was the tagline for the camp–it still is–and it was true.  For me, camp became a meeting place with God–amidst the trees, on the lake, in worship and Bible study, with counselors and cabin mates.  My childhood and adolescent pilgrimage to Trout Lake Camp set a pattern for my future. Throughout my life I’ve looked for ways and places to meet with God.  Perhaps you have some places that for have been a meeting place with God. This place for worship or our smaller contemplative worship service on Sunday evenings gathered in the flame of a candle, the sound of a singing bowl and the light of the stained glass window.  Perhaps there is place in your home–around the table with family or a solitary place with a Bible or a view or a journal. Perhaps there is an outdoor place–in your own garden, in a nearby park or national forest–where you find a meeting with God. Let’s together become such a place.  [PRAYER]

Perhaps we should be more cautious in speaking about meeting with God as if it’s the same as the appointments in one’s calendar or particular places:  Brenda–zoom call at 11am. Geoffrey–9am at Black Sheep. Brendon–Tue, before Gifts Discernment. I have never written–God, Wed morning arm chair. I hope that’s because meeting with God is so primary in my life that the appointments require no calendar reminder.  The rhythm of worship with all of you, solitary prayer and retreat, studying scripture is built into my days. And then there’s my job which includes a lot of this too. But I empathize with Christians, even church leaders, who neglect appointments with God, who with some trusted friends admit that they feel isolated, bereft and wonder whether and where God is in their lives.  I too have experienced loneliness in my relationship with God.

Parable in the Temple

Israel was very intentional about a meeting place with God.  As they wandered the desert a collapsible tent–the tabernacle–was their meeting place.  Later, Israel invested their built environment with a huge Temple, designed according to divine instruction.  The construction of both places–the tabernacle and the temple–engaged Israel’s artists, so that design and beauty drew the people toward God.  Over the centuries, despite seasons when temple leadership was underwhelming or corrupt, Jews had a meeting place with God, as well as a calendar of sacred appointments and plenty of wisdom and law about keeping those appointments.  

Jesus set one of his parables in the Jerusalem Temple where two men are praying out loud.   These aren’t just any two persons. They have stock roles in the Gospel of Luke. The Pharisee is esteemed character, in the parable.  He is not doing bad things. He is not stealing. He is not cheating on his wife. He is not ripping off the masses to line his own pockets.   In fact, the Pharisee does good things. He fasts, so that he’s hungry for the redemption of Israel, the coming Messiah. He calculates a percentage–a large percentage–of his income and gives it to God, fulfilling the law.  And, as a Pharisee, he’s part of a reform movement practicing God’s law in daily life–not just in the Temple, but in every home and synagogue. By any measure, this Pharisee is better than a tax-collector. He doesn’t really have to point that out, but he does.  The Pharisee points it out to God. As if God can’t measure the righteousness of a Pharisee against that of a tax-collector. This parable is more like a joke. Who among us is living according to some of society’s best lights and through privilege or perseverance has avoided the scorn of being one of society’s outcasts?  If that’s you–and that’s me–we’re the Pharisees. The joke’s on us.

The other guy praying in the temple is the tax-collector, whose livelihood is the essence of ethical compromise.  He collects taxes for Rome, exploiting his own people and charges more in order to make a living himself. He is the picture of complicity.  (Kind of like we who are complicit in racism, climate change, and corporate exploitation.) This tax-collector, with a mess for a life, perhaps full of shame or regret doesn’t even look heavenward as he prays.  Yet Jesus says, he goes home justified–or made right by God. The tax-collector has genuinely met with God in the Temple. You see God–the God of scripture–is able to set the whole world to rights and works with anyone who is truly open to this work.  God cannot help but respond to the cry for mercy from a tax-collector.   

If you look around, some people don’t really need God.  They live pretty well. They are fair and caring. Their families are more or less intact.  They support good causes and good candidates. However, like the Pharisee, they–or should I be saying ‘we’?–create some distance between ourselves and those we judge inferior, whom society rejects because of race, or class, country of origin, level of education or employment status.  By distancing ourselves from our neighbor, we also distance ourselves from God. We forget our own desperate need for daily being set right according to God’s kingdom–not our own, according to Jesus’ values, not society’s values. Making a favorable comparison between our own life and that of our neighbor reveals how much we focus on ourselves.  The Temple is a place where we focus on God.

Parable for the Church

By the time the Gospel of Luke was written there was no Temple in Jerusalem.  The Temple rebuilt by Herod the Great was destroyed in the year 70CE and this Gospel was completed in the 80s.  Jesus may have told this parable heading to Jerusalem, anticipating his own identification with all who are scorned.  And Luke–the only Gospel writer to remember this parable–shared this parable with communities of Jews and Gentiles whose gathered after Jesus’ death and resurrection, after the destruction of the Temple to worship God.  Their worship substituted diverse bodies, and united spirits for Temple stones. The meeting place with God became known as church, the assembly.  

Among the early believers who first heard Luke’s Gospel were some former Pharisees, who recognized the crucified and risen Messiah.  They met in Jesus’ name to worship God and to be a sign of the kingdom. Among those first to hear Luke’s Gospel were some former tax-collectors who also recognized this crucified and risen Messiah.  They met in his name to worship God and to be a sign of the kingdom. Former Pharisees, former tax-collectors, Jews and Gentiles, women and men, literate and uneducated–they came from diverse situations–some with admirable personal histories, others with rather sordid back stories, yet they were church together.

Like us a couple thousand years later, the early church was learning to pray together, to meet with God in ways that were in continuity with the Jewish tradition and in ways that were surprisingly fresh and always in ways that broke down the hierarchical conventions of their society.  As church we don’t erase our histories, our stories, our reputations in society. One purpose of this parable is to hold us together by the mercy of God. We poke fun at our sometimes self-righteous posturing. We lament the great social divisions still reflected in the church. And we share a common prayer.  Meeting with God in communal worship is one of the ways God sets the world to rights–makes us righteous or justifies us.

The Jesus Prayer

The prayer upheld in this story is not the Pharisee’s prayer.  It’s the tax collector’s prayer: God, be merciful to me, a sinner.  This is one of several very similar prayers for mercy included in the Gospel of Luke.  The first time it’s on the lips of another scorned segment of society–the 10 lepers who cry:  Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!  Then it’s spoken by the tax-collector in this parable.  A third time the blind man outside Jericho cries: Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.  These Biblical prayers are the basis of The Jesus Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.  

This mantra prayer from the Orthodox tradition is intended to be recited over and over again until it simply flows through us without feeling clumsy.  

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.  

This prayer is frank about our need for God and ushers us into a meeting with the Divine wherever we are.  

I first learned The Jesus Prayer as a high school student.  I read The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger for my 10th grade English class and wanted to read more by the same author.  In Salinger’s Franny and Zooey Franny learns the Jesus Prayer in order to “pray without ceasing,” combatting some of the shallow aspects of her life and society.  In the Baptist tradition in which I was raised, the only set prayers I learned were the Lord’s Prayer and a few table graces. Nearly all the prayers in my life were spontaneous.  So, when I learned the Jesus Prayer as a 15-year-old I was taken with the idea of a short Biblical prayer that one would recite over and over again, until it was an undercurrent, a heartbeat, a stream beneath the stream of consciousness.  I tried it. And over the years I’ve often used The Jesus Prayer.  

Ten years later as a 25-year-old one of the pastors of a Mennonite congregation I began attending preached about this prayer and recommended editing it or adding to it in case all this repetition of referring to ourselves as a sinner would create some kind of self-condemnation.  That was probably good counsel for some of the Mennonites, who had little compassion for themselves. For me, though, my experience of this prayer has been an experience of freedom. When I identify myself as a sinner, it simply means I really need God and I know it. It’s not that I’m worse off than anyone else or even that my particular sins are especially in view.  The prayer brings relief, especially for someone like me who wants to avoid doing bad things and live a good life. I’m a bit like this Pharisee.

This week, pray the Jesus Prayer.  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.  Recite the prayer to yourself on a walk, or as you load the dishwasher.  Pray it on your commute or as you pump gas. It’s a mantra-type prayer. Through repetition the prayer clears the brain-fog and spirit-smog from within and opens up a meeting place with God.  Mantra prayers quiet our inner criticism as well as our interior self-congratulation. The Jesus Prayer prepare us to receive whatever God is doing within us and through us.    

In your bulletin this morning there are several variations on the Jesus Prayer.  If the language of the prayer as used by the Orthodox Church since the 400s is an obstacle for you, choose an alternative.  Our Orthodox brothers and sisters would counsel us to stick with the traditional wording and let God work out the kinks. The main thing is to keep our appointment with God, because we need God.  We need the merciful reign of Jesus Christ in our lives because we are ordinary sinners and we need to be made right, so that our attempt to set things right are aligned with God’s vision for the world and the church.

II Timothy

Our epistle reading for this morning is from a letter written not from the Jerusalem Temple, but from a Roman prison.  Temple and prison, these locations are significant. In II Timothy Paul seems to have reached the end of his active ministry.  As an icon of mature faith Paul, the church planter, apostle and teacher, is now anticipating that he will be executed or die in prison.  Most of his friends have left–on errands for the Lord or given up the cause of Christ. But Paul has the experience of the Lord meeting him in prison.  At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted.  May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength.  The Roman prison as a meeting place with God?  Paul even anticipates death itself as a meeting with the Divine.  He says: …the time of my departure has come…And even in death Saint Paul believes:  The Lord will rescue me…and save me for his heavenly kingdom.  To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.  

Next week is our All Saints Day service when we remember those who have died.   These scriptures remind us that the life of the church is not simply pursuing the good and avoiding the bad, but seeing our need to be made right by the God who hears our cry for mercy and daily sets us to rights.  Today we rejoice that in the gathering of Jesus’ followers we have found a meeting place with the God who redeems and makes us right, so that we become part of the divine healing and hope for the world. Oh, for a thousand tongues…


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