Proper 26B 2018

1 Samuel 1:4-20

Mark 13:1-8

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan


I want to do something unusual for the beginning of this sermon.  I want to lead us in a prayer.  So, The Lord be with you.  Let us pray.

Almighty and gracious Father, we give you thanks for the

fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those

who harvest them. Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of

your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and

the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of your Name;

through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with

you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP 246)

Now, an experiment.  What were you thinking during that prayer?

It’s an odd thing, prayer, really.  It is an ancient practice. It is commonly held that we Christians pray at least daily, well, at least weekly.  We talk about prayer a lot.  We say we are praying for each other, you know, “thoughts and prayers” we throw out that phrase when someone we care for is hurting.  It sometimes seems shallow.  Even when it is far from shallow.  And we do pray for each other.

We pray for friends, family, the sick, the lonely, the destitute, the downtrodden.  We pray for crops and good weather and safe travels.  And we pray for ourselves.  This is all good.

We talk a lot about prayer. And we think of prayer as the most powerful phenomenon in all of life.

Still, if you ask most Christians to explain prayer or define prayer you will find it is difficult for most of us.  We can say that prayer is talking to or with God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit or for some even talking to or with a saint.  But what else goes on when we enter into prayer?

If you are like most people, you may have been thrown by my opening prayer and left, instead of actually praying with me, wondering about the service, maybe trying to remember what Chapter and verse one of the readings was from or maybe you were looking back to see where that hymn we just sang came from.  Or, maybe, like I often do when someone else is praying, you were thinking through your to-do list or making a mental note to speak at coffee hour to someone you care about in another pew, or maybe you were reminding yourself to pick up a certain grocery list on the way home from church or perhaps you’re worried about the food for coffee hour or some wardrobe trouble you are having. Or maybe you were bringing to God your list of worries about your own life and/or the problems of those you love.  Maybe you were thinking about the prayer itself, looking back on your leaflet to see if I was repeating the collect of the day or making guesses about where in the prayer book that pre-written prayer came from.  Or, maybe, you just quieted yourself and tried to genuinely enter into that space you alone know. That place where you go to talk with God.

All of the above is my list of experiences with prayer, when someone suddenly says, “let us pray” I often find my mind wandering.  I suppose there is a list as long for each of us of mental activities we tend to do instead of praying at such times.  Maybe you relate to my mindless wanderings.  Maybe not.  But my point is we all are apt to struggle with mindless wanderings during prayer time.  It is a normal, human way of being. All the great spiritual teachers address this phenomenon often. Perhaps, in fact, at times letting our minds wander to shopping lists and such is prayerful enough. So, do not feel guilty if you too have a wandering mind during the reading of a collect from the prayer book.

On Friday friends of Fr. Thomas Keating gathered to lay him to rest.  The famous spiritual writer and Trappist monk was Superior of St. Benedict's Monastery in Snowmass Colorado, late in his life. Fr. Keating was a life long learner and sojourner of the art of prayer.  I am just beginning to follow his work.

And I long to teach you to pray.

I have joined a contemplative prayer group that meets at the Presbyterian Church across the street. I have been transformed by these 8 or 10 Thursday evenings I haver spent with my new prayer partners.

We read scripture and discuss writings by great spiritual leaders like Thomas Keating. But we also do this amazing thing. We sit in silence in the middle of our time together for 20 whole minutes.  Total silence.  For 20 minutes.  That is what has changed me.  It is making me well.  It is my new therapy for clarity, focus and function.

You see, we suffer in our world from busyness and from noise pollution.  We have lost the capacity for quiet.  We talk or listen to noise from the moment we wake each day to the moment we go to sleep. We spend too much of our time with our faces glued to electronic screens and our ears attached to ever technologically advanced speakers.

Well, most people do. I know I do.  I hope you have some quiet in your life. I have found myself starving for it.  Because sitting quietly, I have found, is the best way to learn to pray.  Of course, it necessitates learning to turn off the mindless wanderings of our busyness.  That is why they call it mind-ful-ness.

Mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness. Mindlessness is the stuff of streaming old sitcoms. And while there may be a place in life for streaming reruns of Friends or Frazier, mind-full-ness is begging for you to tune in.

Mindfulness is an effort to quiet the mind, to focus the attention of the mind on quiet.  And the only reason to ever try to do this is so that you can listen to God.  For that is the goal of prayer. We pray to God in order to discern God’s will for us.

And I long for us to learn to pray.

In my sermon last week, I skipped over the story of the Widow’s Mite because of the opportunity brought with the Bluegrass Mass to talk about our efforts to cease division in our world.  So, I want to go back and examine that story a bit this morning.  I also want to talk about Hannah’s story from this week.

You see, last week we got this story from the Gospel of Mark about an old woman who had no husband and no way to make a living and yet she gave more percentage of her meager savings than the wealthy scribes - she gave a mite. That’s m-i-t-e, not m-i-g-h-t.  It means a small monetary amount.  In this case, about a penny.  She gave humbly.

This story is very familiar but often misunderstood. Most readers assume that Jesus is praising the poor widow’s sacrificial generosity, and the story is indeed a well-worn illustration for preachers who are encouraging their congregations to follow her extravagant example, especially when determining the amount of their annual pledge during the Stewardship Campaign. The reality, however, is more complex.

To give all we have, if taken literally, means that we have absolutely nothing left for ourselves. So what will now keep this poor widow from starving to death? And what does Jesus really think about her gift? Is this what we wants us to do as well?

Some biblical scholars take the story of the Widow’s Mite at face value, by itself, without taking account of the immediately preceding verses, seeing the widow as an example we should emulate. But others see her as an illustration of precisely how “the scribes devour widows’ houses: by inducing them to give their meager resources to the Temple.” In this interpretation, Jesus is not praising her actions at all, but rather lamenting her destitution. She is not an example for us to follow, but rather the victim of an exploitative political and religious system. And this week’s Gospel lesson is also about an exploitative political system and Jesus’ prediction of its demise.

So, when it comes to our financial resources, there is indeed a practical limit that we should not cross, unless we are called to the vowed poverty of monastic life such as Fr. Thomas Keating was.

Yes, Christians are encouraged to give generously of what God has given us; yes, such giving may well cost us more than we would like in terms of available income; and yes, most of us should give more than we do. But just because Jesus praises the widow’s generosity, this does not mean we should, like her, give “all that we have to live on”—and of course even monks and nuns who do vow themselves to personal poverty still have their basic needs of food and shelter and clothing provided by the community. So while I think Jesus commends generosity, he does not encourage irresponsibility. Or, as the old saying goes, trust in God but tie up your camel.

I also think it’s a profound mistake to limit the lessons of the Widow’s Mite to financial matters alone. Strictly speaking the Widow’s Mite is indeed about giving money, but it is also about a radical generosity of life and spirit, a courage and confidence and gratitude to God that frees one to do what otherwise might seem foolish or impossible.[1]

Which brings me back to prayer. Learning better to listen to God in prayer is the perfect practice for listening in this sort of discernment about financial matters.

And I long for us to learn to pray together.

One of the problems with prayer is that we either think we have it down pat and have no need to learn more, or we have given up on ever understanding it so we don’t try anymore.  We simply give a polite bow of the head and work on our to-do list until somebody says “amen.” That may sound harsh.  I am not feeling critical though.  I have learned that prayer is much easier than I once thought.

And I long to teach you this wisdom.

This week we have a similar story from the Old Testament about a married woman who had no children who prayed to God for a son so that she could be fulfilled.  She also made a promise to God to give said son back to God when he became a certain age. Hannah kept her promise and was greatly blessed in return. The son in question became the Samuel, the last of the great judges.

We also read Hannah’s song this morning instead of our usual Psalm, thanks to the way this lectionary we are following unfolds.  This song of Hannah’s is just like Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which Mary sang when she was pregnant with our Lord. And so we sang a version of Mary’s song as the Gradual hymn just before I read the Gospel.  These songs are odes, they are prayers of thanksgiving for the pregnancy of hope.

The Son of Hannah has several features in common with the Magnificat, which was sung in early Christian circles and continues to be regularly sung or read aloud. A number of scholars see Hannah as a "type" of Mary. Both "handmaids" of God bore sons through divine intervention who were uniquely dedicated to God. And both ended up giving their son back to God.

All of these stories are leading us up to the time of the church calendar which has been set aside for that pregnancy of hope. Advent. That time we try to spend waiting, and listening, and quieting ourselves.  That time when we struggle to not get caught up in the rush, the way of the world.  That time we, in the Episcopal Church still spend waiting.

And praying. 

Advent is the perfect season to begin to learn anew how to pray.

And I long for us to learn anew how to pray.

In Judaism the song of Hannah is regarded as the prime model for how to pray, and her song is read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah which is the first day of the Jewish calendar. The Jewish New Year.

The Christian New Year is in two weeks when we begin Advent.  The first Sunday of Advent, which falls on Dec. 2nd this year. Advent 1 is the beginning of the liturgical calendar and so, often thought of as the first day of the Christian New Year.

The basic model of prayer in the Christian tradition is The Lord’s Prayer.  All other prayers are based on the basic formula in The Lord’s Prayer.

There are similarities between the Lord's Prayer and Jewish prayer. “Our Father which art in heaven” is the beginning of many Hebrew prayers. "Hallowed be thy name" is reflected in the Kaddish. "Lead us not into sin" is echoed in the "morning blessings" of Jewish prayer. A blessing said by some Jewish communities after the evening Shema includes a phrase quite similar to the opening of the Lord's Prayer: "Our God in heaven, hallow thy name, and establish thy kingdom forever, and rule over us for ever and ever. Amen."

The history of prayer is, like I said in last week’s sermon, that we all pray the same way.  Or at least we used to.  The history of prayer, like liturgical song, is that it was at some point in time all the same.  It still is all the same on some level.

But you must become quiet to pray.

And I long for us to learn to pray together.

The collect I opened with, if you haven’t figured it out, is the collect for the services in the prayer book for the liturgy set aside for Thanksgiving Day.  We rarely pray this prayer because we take that day away from church to be with family.  But what a great opportunity this week to consider prayer - especially prayers of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving translated backwards, means Eucharist. So let’s practice now.  We can practice quieting our minds as we pray the Prayers of the People together. We can practice focusing our intention as we pray the confession together.  We can practice trying new ways of listening as we pray the Eucharistic prayers together.

But here’s the Good News.  We can also fall comfortably into that best way we pray, that way we are already prayer experts, that time of the service when you teach me to pray.  When we pass the Peace of the Lord.  For it is at that moment of our weekly liturgy, while I stand here wishing we were more solemn, it is at that moment when I watch you love on each other that I realize we are prayer warriors.  For that, my friends is the best act of prayer we practice. When we show our love of each other. That is our prayer answered, our prayer in action, our answer to God’s call to us.

So, let us continue to teach each other to pray.


[1] Rob MacSwain,