The Rev. Cameron O’Riley
You know how Father Stephen says, “We hear these stories every three years.” Or how after a weekend of deep diving into the Parable of the Prodigal Son at the Women’s retreat, I told y’all, “Don’t worry it will be three years before you hear this one again.”
Well, today is a perfect example of our lectionary cycle at work. On July 24, 2016, I preached one of my first sermons at St. Patrick’s on these very lessons.
That Sunday began a week of firsts. I had just finished my first St. Pat’s Vacation Bible School. My friend Christine came to visit and was my first guest in Ohio (who happens to be here today!). I celebrated my first Eucharist as a new priest at the Wednesday service. Only to culminate in my first celebration of a Sunday Eucharist at my first ever U2charist at my very first Irish festival.
Now that I think about it, that was a lot! But you know what? As scary and unsure as ALL of that was, someone had taught me these things. Someone guided the way. There was a foundation on which to rest this shaky beginning. The adults and youth who volunteered to teach Vacation Bible School when I was a child, provided the footings as they loved and nurtured me so that I might live a life rooted and built up in Christ, established in the faith, just as I was taught, abounding in thanksgiving much like today’s reading from Colossians suggests. My friends acted as sealant encouraging and supporting, keeping me humble, and being witnesses to the persistence. And all those teachers, ministers, and priests laid the first bricks influencing the way I engage in ministry with others. Sometimes I catch myself using their phrasing or mimicking their gestures, desiring in some way to have a faith like theirs.
We all have these kinds of people in our lives. Coaches that taught us how to throw a ball or swing a bat, instructors who placed our fingers correctly on our first instruments, mentors who advised us on how to be leaders in the workplace and our community. Just this past week on the Youth Mission Trip to the Appalachian South Folklife Center, I watched as our chaperones and site supervisors taught our youth and one another how to work saws, dig trenches, frame walls, lay flooring, spackle and paint the exterior and interior of a house, demolish a single room to a whole house, prepare meals, and so much more. The youth were teachers too. Those who had previous experience with these labor tasks brought the others along. They lived into the grace of inclusion and welcome as they worked and played and worshiped with the youth of Bruton Parish. And then as in the Gospel lesson today, they instructed each other in prayer serving as readers and officiants for morning prayer and compline. One day as we were struggling to get started at the job site, I asked Amani, “Will you show me how to do that thing you do with your fingers when you pray on your own?” “Of course,” he said. Patiently he demonstrated for Father Stephen and I how to form our fingers and slide our hands together, correcting my first attempt. “Now close your eyes and take a deep breath. Do that for a few minutes.” “Ok,” I said and opened my eyes. I realized Amani and Father Stephen were both still breathing, eyes closed, and I was like “Oh! We’re really doing this.” Amani didn’t just show me, he taught me.
Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary says “It’s a very personal, intimate thing, one’s prayer life. Getting started at praying is less like learning how to drive a car, how to play the banjo, or even how to preach. For most, it is more like learning how to kiss. You learn some by watching others do it. You should be discerning about whom you will allow to teach you. You certainly make mistakes. And maybe you always worry deep in your head that you might be doing it wrong.”
“There is very deep and personal longing for connection that defies forms and formulas.”We seek such intimacy with God in prayer, to deeply know and be known. And Jesus here encourages such familiarity in the Gospel reading today, revealing far more than just how to, but also about the character and personality of the One to whom we pray. Prayer “rooted in the kindliness and generosity of God.”
Some of you may have seen a vignette about a grandfather walking through his yard when he hears his granddaughter repeating the alphabet in a tone of voice that sounds like a prayer. “What are you doing,” he asks? The little girl explains, “I’m praying, but I can’t think of the right words. So I’m just saying all the letters, and God will put them together for me, ‘cause he knows what I’m thinking.”
There once was a young boy named Jack. He loved spending time at his grandparent’s house. He’d follow his Grandfather around his workshop marveling at all the tools hanging from various hooks, drawers tumbling over with hammers and wrenches and screwdrivers, rags tossed about covered in varnish or motor oil, enticing coffee cans and glass jars filled with tiny treasures of nuts and bolts and various odds and ends, deeply breathing in the musty dual scent of wood shavings and car parts. The dusty worktable an altar of possibilities, a sacred and hallowed space of all things Grandpa.
He’d wander through the garden with his Grandmother checking on the flowers, picking vegetables for the daily meals. When he thought she wasn’t looking, he’d peak through her sewing basket. The pins and scissors sticking out the edges calling to him to come and explore. It was filled with notions of brightly colored thread, a spooled measuring tape that no longer stayed wound, and buttons galore. Her spaces smelled of rosewater and whatever labor of love was baking or being fried up that day. Cooking, gardening, and sewing were central to her theology of love.
Jack would sleep in his father’s old room on an old wooden spool bed that creaked when he’d lie down. It was a simpler less hurried time. Wrapped in a faded worn quilt, he’d wait and listen for Grandma and Grandpa to settle into bed themselves, slowly the mumbles became clearer as they prayed compline together. It was their evening ritual, each having their own part giving thanks for the joys and graces experienced at the close of the day.
Jack grew and the years passed, then one day Grandma passed away.
Jack came back to visit Grandpa. The garden was still there, yet it seemed smaller. The workshop now covered with dust and spiderwebs from disuse. The world had been shifted. That night as Jack lay in that same wooden bed, from down the hall he heard his grandfather praying, but this time he said all the parts of Compline himself, both his and hers. It was the rhythm of prayer that he had settled into and it was the rhythm that would see him through his grief.
It was this witnessing, this intimacy that guided Jack’s prayers more than any book he’d ever read, or sermon heard.
Lord, give us the words, and teach us to pray.
The Rev. Dr. Stephen Smith
Texts for Preaching, Yr C