February 4, 2018
Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-12, 21c, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39
Back in the day clergy were told that we should have the New York Times in one hand and the Bible in the other as we write our sermons. For this sermon I have Boston sports radio in one hand and today’s gospel reading in the other. So three weeks ago the talk was about Tom Brady’s hand which had been cut in practice. Then since the AFC Championship game the talk was about Gronk’s head since his concussion. This past week I’ve heard talk that one reason the Patriots have been so successful over the years is because they practice better than other teams.
All of us know that practice is essential in any endeavor that’s worth doing well, because practice does at least three things for us: practice strengthens our stamina, sharpens our focus, and solidifies our purpose.
Without stamina we become weak and tired. Without focus we become distracted and scattered, and without purpose we lose intention and direction.
And we need all three: People without focus can have a boat load of energy and purpose, but they’re all over the map and get nothing done. People without purpose may have lots of stamina and a laser focus, but they can’t remember the point of it all.
I learned to play the trumpet well because I practiced and therefore had all three. I didn’t learn to play the guitar, because I didn’t practice and therefore I lacked all three.
So, now let’s switch hands and look at the gospel reading which gives an intimate look into Jesus’ practice: Mark says, “while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Prays to his Abba, his cosmic papa.
Please notice: Jesus is not like Superman, who doesn’t need to go to the gym to stay strong. Jesus is a 30-something Jew, who practices prayer to increase his stamina, sharpen his focus, and clarify his purpose.
We don’t know exactly how Jesus practices his pre-dawn prayer, but we can see the effects it produces in him.
First, his prayer builds his stamina to deal with all the needy people. It’s not enough for him to eat and sleep well. He practices daily opening to Abba, so Abba can renew his spirit and give him the strength to face the hoards who want a piece of him.
Second, he practices deep prayer to Abba in order to sharpen his focus. Awash in the demands of the crowds and the disciples, it is easy for his focus, his attention in the moment, to fragment into a thousand pieces.
I experienced this in my first parish in Peachtree City, a planned community 20 miles south of the Atlanta airport. St. Andrew’s in the Pines was a two year old mission, but each of the 70 people had an opinion about what I should be doing as vicar, and since I thought it was my job to make them happy by doing what they wanted, my focus was fragmented.
Whenever priest and people lose their focus on Christ, we end up running around, chasing one shiny object after another, like a child filled with sugar and caffeine on Christmas morning.
Jesus practices his prayer day by day, into order to keep the main thing, the main thing—which is to stay focused on Christ.
Third, Jesus practices prayer to remember his purpose. Peter and the others finally find Jesus and say, “Everyone is searching for you.” Which is to say, “get with it Jesus, the people are gathering again. You can make us famous with your healing ministry. Time’s a-wastin’!”
This is another form of the three temptations Jesus experiences in the wilderness after his baptism where Satan says to him “If you are the Son of God make pleasing yourself, or the crowd, or Satan your purpose.” I’m surprised Jesus doesn’t say to Peter, as he does at Caesarea Philippi, “Get behind me Satan, you think as men think and not as my Abba thinks.”
Instead, Jesus responds: “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
In Jesus’ practice that morning he remembers his purpose.
Scripture also says there are times Jesus needs to get away on retreat for a longer time of prayer, because the people just become too much. And we remember the gut-wrenching prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane the night of his arrest when he struggles with Abba’s call to give himself over to his enemies. Only someone who has practiced well could surrender to the answer Abba gives.
The obvious thing to say is this: If Jesus needs to practice prayer, then so do we, for the same three reasons.
So let’s consider our own prayer practice.
The first question is: Do I have a prayer practice? Do I show up for this practice every day? And if I miss practice today, do I show up for practice tomorrow?
The second question is: Does my practice help me open to Abba and thereby strengthen my stamina, sharpen my focus, and solidify my purpose?
Of course prayer is not the only thing we need to practice. Other practices are things like, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, visiting prisoners, serving the poor, raising kids, comforting the grieving, reading the Bible, welcoming the stranger, doing good work, working for justice, and striving for peace. But, again, without the practice of prayer we quickly lose our way.
When Franciscan Richard Rohr founds a new community in Albuquerque, New Mexico decades ago, he knows it isn’t enough to call it the Center for Action, because he knows those activists who don’t practice prayer and have become as fragmented, burned out, and angry as the people they protest against.
So he names it the “Center for Action and Contemplation”. Every morning they practice Centering Prayer for 20 minutes.
Maybe you’re thinking—well that’s great for a celibate priest, but I’ve got children to raise and a demanding job and I do a lot at church! How do I find the time to practice?
One answer is that we make time for what is important to us.
But there is also a deeper answer: None of us is capable of practicing prayer until we realize the good news, that the hardest part of this prayer is not up to us but up to Triune God.
Paul writes in the Letter to the Galatians: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6 And because you are [God’s] children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our[b]hearts, crying, “Abba![c] Father!”
The Spirit of Jesus, given to us in baptism, prays through us, helping us to pray as Jesus prays in us saying, “Abba, Father!”
This means the Spirit of Jesus is praying in you and me to Abba at this very moment. Therefore, we don’t have to wake up when it’s very dark to pray—though that is a good practice for those called to it. All we have to do is join with the Spirit by lifting our hearts to Abba in the moments of our day: while waiting for our coffee to brew, we pray, “Abba, give me the stamina I need for this day!”
While we’re driving to work or waiting with our kids for the bus, we pray, “Abba, heal my fragmentation and help me focus today.”
While we’re getting ready for bed, we join with Spirit within and pray, “Abba, thank you for this day and while I sleep renew in my life your purpose, which is, as the prayer book says, ‘to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ’. Book of Common Prayer, page 855
This is Abba’s work in us—all we have to do is show up for practice.