A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, July 24, 2022

By: David May, Rector


I spent time at the Missionaries of Charity house in Kingston, Jamaica about thirty years ago with about two dozen college students on a three-week mission trip.  Some of you may have already heard me talk about this place before.  It’s funny – in the course of a life – what a few days here and there can do.  The Missionaries of Charity is the Roman Catholic order of nuns founded by Mother Teresa.  Their job is to care for the least of the least.  Their job is to see the face of Jesus in the old man dying of cirrhosis from decades of drinking who no one in his family can tolerate anymore.  Their job is to show God how much they love him by taking care of those who’ve slipped through the cracks (or been pushed through) who have no one and nothing left.  That’s the job they do that we all talk about and marvel over.  They would probably tell you that their job, mostly, is to pray.

We volunteered at the Kingston house while we were there and did whatever the sisters told us to do.  We swept and mopped floors.  We put fresh sheets on beds and helped prepare and serve meals and clean up after.  Things like that.  Whatever the sisters told us to do.  They were amazing.  The sisters were from all over the globe: brown and black and white.  They were young and old.  They were from Europe, South America, Asia, North America – a little community of the Kingdom already gathered as a sign of what God is up to in the world.  It was an amazing, amazing place.  It’s hard to describe.  There was so much brokenness and pain – so much suffering; so much that showed that this world is not the way that God means for it to be.  But all that brokenness was side by side with the radiant grace of Jesus shining through, transforming everything.  It was just stunning, literally. It took you breath away.  I could see how you would give up everything to live like this.  But I also knew that we’d be leaving in a couple of weeks – which makes it easier to think about giving up everything.  These women, on the other hand, weren’t going anywhere.  This was just their normal life.

Several times in the course of a day, the sisters would finish whatever it was they were doing, wash their hands and face, straighten their habits, and silently walk up the stairs to the second-floor chapel to say their prayers together.  The first time I figured out what was going on and where they were going, I fell in line behind them.

As I was getting ready to follow them into the chapel, the Mother Abbess of that house (a woman named Sister Irudaya) stepped in front of me at the entrance to the chapel and said, “you can’t come in here.”  I said, “Mother, I just want to pray with you.”  She said, “It’s not permitted.”  And closed the door.  Later in the day, Sr. Irudaya found me and said, ‘you have to understand, only the community of sisters prays the hours of the day together.  That’s a rule of our order.’

The last day we were there, Sr. Irudaya told me that she had talked to the community, and they were willing for me to come for prayers that afternoon but that I would have to sit at the back and not talk.  ‘We can talk about it later before you all leave if you like.’ she said.

So I did go to pray with them that afternoon, feeling fairly guilty. I hadn’t meant to, but had I bullied my way in?!  The sisters sang the psalms and canticles of their prayers like joyful birds while I sat there stewing over my own presumptuousness, wondering, ‘how can I ever be like them, Lord?’

That evening we were all standing around in the foyer of the entrance saying our good-byes.  We were flying home the next day.  There were lots of tears among us.  It’s hard to leave a place where it’s normal to see that well, actually it really is Jesus in the kitchen washing pans, or you see his face clearly, unmistakably him, in the face of someone lying on a cot or there beside a sister singing or just about everywhere you look really.  Even after just a short while there, you found yourself expecting to see him.  Is this what a life of prayer like theirs is like?  Sr. Irudaya came up to me and took me aside.  She said, “thank you for coming.  You were all such a blessing for us.  An encouragement in our work.”  I said, “your welcome, Sister.  Thank you so much for having us.”  She said, “you have to find your own way to talk with God, to pray.  You can’t use ours; do you understand?”  Then she took my head in her hands and touched her forehead to mine the way the Missionaries of Charity learned to do from Mother Teresa to greet each other or to say good-bye.  And when she did that, I saw that something like a door I’d been knocking on, opened.

Teach us to pray, the disciples say to Jesus.  The reason they gave for asking is that John the Baptist did the same for his followers.  Teach us to pray the way you do.  The words of prayer he gave them that day were reworked into a proper prayer by Matthew – like the prayer we will pray together shortly.  But Luke’s version isn’t a finished piece like Matthew’s.  It’s more like a series of doors to knock on.  Here’s one.  Let your Name be made holy by everything in its own way from the farthest flung galaxies spinning out shimmering light into the endless dark ferocious vacuum of space, to the birds greeting a new morning with the miracle of song like the first day of creation (Morning has broken!), to the tiniest bits of matter holding the whole creation together, to your own heart’s breathless words, ‘God, are you there?’.  Ask.  Seek.  Knock.  Feed us today with what we need today, trusting your goodness to give that.  God, can I trust you with that?  What are you asking of me?  Ask?  Forgive my own sins I’m afraid to talk about with you.  Save us from being tempted by the beguiling evil of this world and be lost before we even know it.  Ask.  Seek.  The goodness of God we need, God will give.  Pray.

We Episcopalians are justifiably proud of the elegance and depth of the prayers we have in the Prayer Book.  They give us words that speak truth when we’re tongue-tied and can’t find the right words or don’t even know where to begin.  But the faithful lives these proper prayers bear witness to are no substitute for seeking our own.  Barbara Brown Taylor said briskly that “if we want to give up secondhand religion we will need to shoot for our own living experience of faith”, and not someone else’s.  Pray for yourself.

If you want something better than second-hand religion, something that holds suffering side by side with the transforming grace of Jesus, then pray as he did, as he teaches us: ask and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  None of that will ever make any one of us a finished piece.  But it may give us life to expect to see Jesus almost anywhere.  And follow him.  Amen.