A Love Story

Proper 12C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Last Saturday, Kari and I attended a summer wedding. Our own Kevin Crowder married Katie Davis. I gave a nuptial blessing as part of a lovely ecumenical service that blended their Catholic and Lutheran traditions with beautiful music, thoughtful prayers, two great homilies and selections from scripture.  Marriage today celebrates love between equals, partners, who take turns being strong for each other, washing one another’s feet.

Lutheran pastor, historian, and scholar Martin Marty once described all of scripture as ‘love-letters from God.’  In today’s scripture, love and marriage give us the proper framework to understand what the heck is happening when we pray, guidance for how we should pray, and why we should do it without ceasing. 

Marriage is a metaphor for faith found in both the Hebrew and Christian Testaments.  However, it’s not like the one Kari and I experienced between Keven and Katie.  The marriage metaphor for faith is not one between equals.  It is loving and life-giving. But if we’re being honest, the covenantal vow of love between God and Israel; between Christ and the church; between Jesus and each of us—is according to Hosea, like a wedding between a prophet and a prostitute. (Ouch!  Prophets can be kind of mean.  And in case you are about to stand up and fight for the dignity of sex workers I commend you.  But maybe it makes a difference knowing Hosea wrote for an audience 2,700 years ago –although things are not all that different today.) 

Christ is the perfect groom and the Church is his imperfect bride. Christ looks lovingly on the Church, the people of God, who are corrupted and corroded, and covered with sin. The story of unequally yoked marriage partners is a parable about grace. It is the message that God loves sinful, imperfect people.

The inalienable dignity of every human being is rooted in the fact of this unearned love. In any marriage, even one between unequal partners, honest, vulnerable communication is necessary to sustain and even deepen the bond of love. The church calls this communication with God, prayer. In fidelity to this life-long covenantal loving relationship marked with water and the sign of the cross in baptism, nourished at the table where everyone is invited, and everyone has a place, we pray. 

The Lord’s Prayer provides a handy outline for all our prayers. Martin Luther called the Lord’s Prayer “a summary of the whole gospel.”  The Omaha Home for Boys published this memorable poem, “You cannot pray the Lord’s Prayer and even once say ‘I.’  You cannot pray the Lord’s Prayer and even once say ‘my.’  Nor can you pray the Lord’s Prayer and not pray for one another, and when you ask for daily bread, you must include your brothers and sisters.  For others are included in each and every plea, from the beginning to the end of it, it does not once say ‘me.’” By the way, neither does the Lord’s prayer say anything about damnation, nor does it even mention the name of Jesus.  I remember being surprised at hearing the Lord’s Prayer said at interfaith gatherings. It can be prayed by people of any faith community.

William H. Willimon comments, “It’s curious that physical deterioration has become the contemporary North American church’s main concern in prayer.  Jesus is most notable for teaching that we are to pray—not for recent gall bladder surgery—but for our enemies!” 

Prayer is the talking and listening that goes on between a lover and the beloved.  It is not a way to get something you want, like from Amazon, or to make something magical happen. We’re probably all guilty of praying this way at one time or another. “As if God were a cosmic gumball machine into which we can insert our prayers like so many shiny quarters to get whatever we want.” (Debi Thomas)

Ask, seek, knock. Talk to me, Jesus says, with your whole heart.  Pray like a psalmist, don’t hold anything back.  And what do we get for this?  Jesus gives us the answer. God answers all our prayers with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. That’s it.  That’s all.  That’s everything! 

In Luke’s gospel, there is no greater gift. The Holy Spirit empowers John the Baptist (1:15). The Holy Spirit enables Mary to bring forth the Savior (1:35). The Holy Spirit inspires Zechariah to prophesy (1:67) and Simeon and Anna to recognize the infant Jesus (2:28).  Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit. This Spirit is nothing less than the power of God to bring about redemption and new creation. 

This should make it clear the Lord’s Prayer isn’t just for church.  It’s an outline of talking points that goes with you everywhere –just like God does.  I have to tell you a story about the Lord’s Prayer that goes back to the 1960’s. 

Back then my parents joined a little Lutheran church in Ithaca, NY that helped hide the famous Vietnam-era war protesters, the Berrigan brothers, from the FBI.  The experience knocked the socks off my North Dakota farm kid parents.  The pastor preached the church’s mission was to challenge as much as to comfort. Ultimately the brothers became part of a group called the “Cantonsville Nine.”  On May 17, 1968, the nine went into the Selective Service offices in Catonsville, Maryland, and burned several hundred draft records in a direct action again the Vietnam War.  They were arrested, tried, and found guilty of destroying government property.  After the nine were sentenced, one of them, the Catholic priest named Daniel Berrigan, asked the judge if the Lord’s Prayer could be recited.  All in the courtroom, including the judge and the prosecuting attorneys, rose and joined in the prayer. Dan Berrigan and his brother were both sentenced to several years in prison.

Now what do you suppose God did with that prayer?  God only knows –but I’ll bet everyone in that courtroom knew they were human. Each of them stood equally in need of grace—that all of them were children of God.  In a time of great tension and division in our country, perhaps it helped those in authority and those who challenged authority respect each other for playing their part in a higher calling.

Prayer is a language of love between Christ and his bride –between us and God. Prayer talk fills us with the Holy Spirit.  Prayer joins us to each another. Prayer gives us eyes to see everything like Thea Bowman (1937–1990) did. Thea, a black Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration born in Mississippi, said “God is present in everything. In the universe, in creation, in me and all that happens to me, in my brothers and sisters, in the church, and in the Eucharist—everywhere… God is bread when you’re hungry, water when you’re thirsty, a harbor from the storm. God’s father to the fatherless, a mother to the motherless. God’s my sister, my brother, my leader, my guide, my teacher, my comforter, my friend…God’s my all in all, my everything.” (Thea Bowman: A Gift to the Church,” Modern Spiritual Masters: Writings on Contemplation and Compassion, ed. Robert Ellsberg (Orbis Books: 2008), 141-142.) Prayer changes hearts and minds.  Pray every day, without ceasing to renew your weary hearts, rekindle hope, find strength to answer weakness, and quench your dry thirsty soul.