The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Lent 3, Year B (2021)
Exodus 20:1-17; St. John 2:13-22
March 7, 2021
Prayer As Your Life
This is the Third Sunday in Lent, as we continue in this series of reflections on how we practice our prayer. What I share today in my sermon may be nothing new to you at all. You may think to yourself, “well, that’s obvious.” But it wasn’t obvious to me, apparently. It is a lesson I needed to learn, and it is deeply meaningful that I am learning it for myself–especially over this past year. This past year has been one of the hardest–yet most meaningful–teachers I have ever had. The lesson I am learning has everything to do with seeing your entire life as a prayer.
First, let me tell you another story about my grandfather, my Daddar, the extraordinary man who was wounded outside Bologna in World War II and who became a world-class tinkerer in his old age. As I get older, Daddar becomes even more of a role model for me, someone whose way of living encourages me to reflect on my life choices.
He lived simply, wasting nothing. He once replaced a tire on his push mower with one that he pulled off a tricycle someone had tossed in the dumpster down the road from their house. He would find all sorts of treasures there! For the longest time, we could see him mowing the yard with one of the tires covered in a sort of red and white peppermint stripe.
Any plant or rooting he stuck in the ground would sprout, including an incredible red and yellow chrysanthemum that he stuck in a broken barbecue grill-turned-planter on the patio.
When I think of Daddar, I think of a solid, grounded life that was well-lived. Simple, balanced, and realistic. Seasoned by the pain of war in his early twenties, he never took life for granted, and he never missed an opportunity to tell his family he loved us.
Interestingly now, as I look back, I see that there was a deep intention to his way of life. There was a structure there, and he made choices about what he would spend time on, what he considered a priority. Even though he lived simply, he did not live aimlessly or flippantly. It takes conscious work to nurture a simple and grounded life.
Daddar made choices about what he felt was important to spend time on, and making choices means that you must say no to some things in order to say yes to others.
I know we have all been challenged this year. I think of my fellow parents, especially, taken out of our normal routines with school and activities and sent to our homes. We realize that the adage “it takes a village to raise a child” is very true when we lose our wider support structures like teachers, coaches, piano and gymnastic instructors, and troop leaders and find ourselves working with our kids on projects and doing math that has more letters in it than actual numbers. It has been stressful, and I only hope that we come to appreciate all the people in that wider “village” that are helping us raise our children when we get on the other side of this. Maybe we will never look at teachers the same way again. Or physicians or nurses. Or grocery workers.
I think about the choices that were taken from us, as it were, during these days, and the other choices we struggled to make. I think of the older members of the parish with health concerns who took on the lives of hermits in many ways. Just last week I was talking with my dear friend Fr. Guerric from Mepkin Abbey outside Charleston who said, “the pandemic has made Trappists of all of us.” We have all tested the waters of a more cloistered life.
We have all been challenged to become more conscious of how we live these days, and the loss of routines and demands has shifted our perspectives about many things. We have also seen such experiences of God’s grace in these days, and the opportunity has actually given us a chance to re-evaluate, restructure, and realign our lives along trajectories of simplicity, balance, and groundedness. We have had to make choices, and perhaps we see how our choices have consequences.
Like my grandfather. He purposefully chose to live a simple life, and I learned from him that simple does not mean easy. Saying no to the stress and busyness meant that he had time to spend with us, time to support us, time to work in the garden and grow food, time to live in a way that gave him joy. Time to teach me how to drive in the old brown chevy pickup truck. He said no to busyness, and he said no to getting caught up in having to have the shiniest and newest thing. He had no interest in keeping up with the Joneses. He would bring them fresh tomatoes from his garden and that brought him joy.
Dadder structured his days intentionally, just as we are being invited to do–not just during this year but actually at any moment in our lives. This conscious structuring of life is what we call discernment, making decisions that are rooted in an awareness of God’s presence and guidance.
In order to do this, to nurture such an intentional life, the wisdom of our tradition says that we need a framework, some form of a faithful boundary that lays out a pattern of where to walk, how to stand, and how to act in life. We see the call to such an intentional life in the psalms.
Teach me your way, O Lord,
that I may walk in your truth;
give me an undivided heart to revere your name, we hear in Psalm 86:11.
Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long, we hear in Psalm 25:4ff. And the references keep going in our sacred texts.
We are reminded that our practice of faith is so often understood as a path, and on paths you have to learn where to step–and where not to.
As they were journeying in the wilderness for so long, Moses realized that the Hebrew people were going to need structure to nurture their practice of faith. They weren’t only wandering physically. They needed holy boundaries to help discern how they should live and act. This realization is the deep wisdom of what we call the Ten Commandments. They are not mere “rules” to follow; rather, they are a deep wisdom teaching steeped in the awareness that we need a holy framework, something that helps us make conscious decisions about life. Don’t step there, step here.
I believe so many of the ten are framed in the negative because we are human and so often fall short and miss the mark. We call that sin.
It’s like when our kids were first able to walk around the house and needed guidance on how to move in the world. Don’t step there, step here. When they reached for an outlet or cord, we didn’t explain the physics of electricity to them. We told them not to touch the outlet. As they grew in wisdom, they built off that instruction of where to step and where not to step.
The Ten Commandments offer us such guidance on how to walk the path of our practice of faith.
There are infinite ways of loving your neighbor, but let’s start by agreeing not to kill them. This feels like a good bottom line.
There are infinite ways to share a friendly relationship with others in your community, but let’s agree not to steal their stuff or their spouse.
There are infinite ways of honoring God, of showing our devotion to God, but first–first–we must set out the boundary that it will be God alone whom we worship.
That means that, in order to say yes to this worship of God, we are saying no to the temptation of worshipping anything or anyone else–and that includes all the stuff of life that the wider culture wants to convince us is so important. And it includes anyone who acts as though we must worship them. Our loyalty is to God alone.
The guard rails help us manage the path before us.
Friends, this is why Jesus got so angry in the temple that day and turned over the tables: because the temple authorities had taken wrong steps on the wrong path when it came to the intersection of cultural norms around money and the call to worship God alone. It shouldn’t take that many steps to convert this type of coin into that type of coin–with some taking a cut with interest along the way–in order to give your offering to share in God’s loving kingdom. Jesus flipped the tables over to shake them out of that illusion. Like a great Zen master, Jesus the spiritual teacher was waking them up and challenging them to see the point: that we are called to worship God with our whole hearts, minds, souls, and bodies.
Walk here, not there.
Here’s the thing I am learning: for so long in my life, I thought of prayer as something that I did. “Say your prayers,” we were taught, and this is true. It just isn’t the whole truth, and I need the whole truth these days.
It isn’t just “say your prayers.” I am coming to see, more and more, that the deep wisdom of our tradition teaches us to “be your prayers.” Be them. Be a prayer, in your whole life. Be a prayer in the way you live, the way you treat people. Be a prayer in the way you care for those in need, for the way you reject hatred, lies, and violence.
Be a prayer. Don’t just say them. I’m tired of folks saying so much stuff these days and then acting as though they are only out for themselves. It’s easy to just say things and then go on living your life the way you want to live it, without saying “no” to those things that actually steer you straight into “the valley of the shadow of death.”
If we don’t see our Christian faith as a path, as a practice that actually changes the way we live in the world, then we’re doing it the wrong way, to be blunt. Jesus wasn’t shy about telling folks that discipleship costs. Lay down your lives. Take up your cross. Follow me. As followers of Jesus, perhaps we begin to see that our entire lives are meant to be transformed into embodied prayers that bring hope and peace to a struggling world.