The Holler and Echo

A sermon from Psalm 119:97-104 and Luke 18:1-8 preached on 10.20.2013

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The book of Psalms is my very favorite book of the bible. It may be the most honest book of the bible too. Whatever the emotion—happiness, gratitude, anger, sadness, disappointment—you name it, you can find it in the Psalms.

The Psalms are the blues of the bible. And I do love the blues. There’s nothing like a blues riff. The Psalms are like Robert Johnson’s Crossroad Blues,

I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees, Asked the lord above ‘Have mercy, save poor Bob, if you please. Standin’ at the crossroad, I tried to flag a ride. Didn’t nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by.

Yes the blues and the Psalms—they somehow sum up every feeling there is all in one song.

One of my very favorite songs is U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. The song is a 20th century psalm addressed to God,

I have climbed highest mountain, I have run through the fields, only to be with you. But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

U2 writes my favorite Gospel songs.

The Psalms, are harsh too. King David, who wrote many of the Psalms, well, he never holds back a thing from God. Whenever we read Psalms in worship or bible study, we often leave parts of them out, and it’s usually the ugly parts. We’re not quite sure what to do with the surprising anger and vengefulness in some of them.

Psalm 137 says,

 Happy are the ones who seize the babies [of our enemies] and bash them against rocks.

Whoa! That’s way too far! I don’t care what your worst enemy has done to you, that’s way out of line. But still it’s said in the Psalms.

There’s vengeance, these poets ask God to zap offending nations. If you’ve ever watched the show “Revenge”, as nasty as those characters are, these Psalms have them beat in the angry and hateful category. These same Psalms give us some of the most beautiful writing any pen has ever touched paper with.

The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…As far as the east is from the west, God has removed our transgressions from us.

The Book of Psalms is beautiful and dangerous. Honest, vital, intimate, and full of life. The writers of the Psalms dreamed of a day greater than their own when God’s love and justice would fill and renew the earth. When God would come among us, closer than every before, and renew creation with a fresh Word.

The Psalms are restless with that sort of anticipation. They holler out, pleading for a fuller relationship between the Creator and the created. The Psalms invite silent moments in the pause between verses, for the voice of God to echo back somehow. They demand God to come near. They plead with God to stay close by. They ask God to send a new Word to us all.

The Psalms are a prayer book. And in our prayers we holler out to God and then wait for echoes to come back to us. That may be all that they are. Hollers and echoes.

Φ

Jesus tells his disciples a parable about an unjust judge and very persistent widow. Luke doesn’t often tell his readers what a parable from Jesus is about before he relates it to them, but this is one of those times,

Jesus was telling the disciples about their need to pray continuously and not to be discouraged.

The Gospel according to Luke was written somewhere around 90 A.D. to a church in a terrible amount of crisis. These early Christians, most of them Jewish converts, others gentiles, were living in a world that was becoming more and more hostile towards them. The people of Luke’s church were being ostracized, beaten, and martyred for following in the Way of Jesus. They needed the violence against them to stop but there was no sign that it would.

These early Christians are hollering out for Jesus to return. The sooner the better. Then, their suffering would end and all would be made right again.

Just like we hear in the Psalms, those who are persecuted for their faith would be lifted up for their faithfulness and their persecutors would have to answer for their cruelty.

This parable spoke consoling words to those early Christians, but it offers no solutions for their suffering. It asks them to have patience and to not be discouraged in their waiting for Jesus to come back and end their suffering. This parable urges these early Christians to cry out to God to provide them justice in the midst of their martyrdom. Luke wants them to be persistent in prayer and to be confident that God hears them as they cry out for help.

φ

What kind of Word does this offer us today—2,000 years later? Clearly we’re not in the same situation as those first century Christians. We’re not necessarily anxious about Jesus coming back anymore, in fact, for the most part, we’re quite happy living out the blessings that God has given us right here.

But Luke’s message is the same to us as it was to those he wrote to. Jesus’s parable is about the importance of living our lives in continuous prayer. 

There is rich life is prayer. In prayer we holler out to God our most immediate needs and our inmost desires, waiting for an answer back from the One who listens and knows us better than we even know ourselves. And as most people understand it, prayer is when we ask and God answers, when we petition and expect God to provide.

For many, prayer is just this. This idea that we pray to a cosmic vending machine that provides us with whatever our hearts desire.

Yes, God does answer prayer. But this kind of prayer can easily make us into selfish and self-centered people. And when we start talking about this, I start to wonder what prayer really is and who prayer is really for.

When we fill the sky with our prayers to God, do our words not fill the space inside of us too? Do our prayers not rattle around in our minds, and shake our bones? Do the words we pray aloud to God not come back and echo into the deepest parts of us?

φ

I love your Instruction, Psalm 119 says. I think about it constantly.

Psalm 119 is a huge psalm that gives praise to God for giving us a path to walk on and a light to see by. The psalmist says that following God’s Instruction—God’s Word—is a way of life. These words from the psalmist tell us that when we choose to live inside the rich life of God’s living Word, our lives are enriched and made whole, and in God’s Instruction, we can find our greatest happiness and treasure. God’s Word, this psalmist says, feeds us, and keeps us. Life lived with God in the center is sweeter than the taste of honey in our mouths.

Psalm 119 teaches us that living the life of faith is not about living within the confines of a bunch of rules. It’s not about subscribing to an unending list of commandments that God is forcing us to live by. It isn’t about us at all.

The life of faith is about having our ears tuned and our eyes open to the ways that God moves among us and through us and in us. The life of faith, this psalmist is saying, is about opening ourselves up to God so that that God can take our lives and make them holy.

φ

This is ultimately what prayer is. Yes, it’s right of us to pray for what we need fixed in our lives and in our world. God listens to our deepest needs and desires. God does touch our lives and God eases our suffering. But doesn’t God already know all of these things even before we put words to them?

Prayer is not just a way to tell God what we need. Prayer also points us toward God. Prayer doesn’t mold God to our desires, it helps us to mold ourselves around God’s desires. Prayer is an invitation to relationship and intimacy with God.

φ

There’s always that first moment when a child discovers that if they shout loud enough, they can hear their echo. And it’s even cooler in a large buildings like Sam’s Club or Costco. Big warehouses that gratify a child’s scream by sending it back to them seconds later.

Watching a child discover their echo is cool for the first couple times they try, but after it gets old and pointless. But there are many examples in nature where animals use their own echo to live their everyday lives.

Bats use high-pitched sounds to find their way around in dark caves. A bat’s sound bounces off the walls of a cave and by the way their screeches echo back to them, they know where they are, even in the pitch black.

Dolphins find their way and discover their surroundings using clicks to echolocate what is around them. By the way their own screeches echo back to them, dolphins know the shapes of objects and other animals that are around them. They can even tell from those echoes if what’s around them is alive or dead.

We holler out in prayer to God. God certainly hears them all, but our prayers also echo back to us, and over time they tell us about ourselves, don’t they? Our prayers bounce back to us and we learn from them where we are in the scheme of things. They tell us where our hearts and minds are located.

You could say that prayer echolocates us and helps us orient ourselves to the Ways of God.

Through prayer we learn where we are and where we need to go. As our prayers echo inside of us they begin re-shaping us. Could it be that the importance of prayer is not about letting God know where to be and how to act in our lives, but a way for us to know where to be and how to act in God’s life?

Prayer locates us in God’s rich life and our practice of prayer orients our lives, gives our lives guidance, a path to walk by, and a light to see by. Prayer points us in God’s great direction.

φ

Jesus’ parable is about the struggle a widow has with an unjust judge. The judge is the epitome of power and, as far as he’s concerned, the judgments he makes about cases are the last word.

The Widow is on the opposite end of the social spectrum—poor and without anyone to care for her. Widows were looked after in Jesus’ time, but only by people who followed the teachings of ancient Jewish tradition.

Most likely, she is seeking her deceased husband’s inheritance because, by some injustice, she has yet to receive a thing. This poor woman has visited this powerful judge before—many times, it seems—and has always been turned away. She hollers at this judge, because she knows what is right to do in her situation. According to Jewish law, this is her money and she knows she deserves it.

The parable about this poor widow, in her unceasing attempts to find justice, is a Word to Luke’s early church that as long as you center yourself in what is right and just and continue to speak from that place, the prayers that we offer to God grind away at the rough edges of our lives, they echo deep inside of us, they reverberate around us and they affect change.

And through the holler of our unceasing prayer lives we become more and more aligned with God, with what is right and just. Through persistent prayer, we locate ourselves in deep relationship with God and with God’s purposes.

Φ

I’ve heard it said that prayer is not doing, but being.

Prayer is about developing a heart that says to God, “Sculpt us into the people You want us to be.” Prayer is how we invite God to open us up and make a home deep inside of us.

A life full of prayer says that we’re open to letting God plant whatever he wants inside of us. Prayer nurtures what God has planted, and it grows—shaping us, molding us, and tuning us into the One who moves everywhere in us, everywhere around us, and everywhere beyond us.

May prayer align our hearts with the heart of God. May the time we spend in silence, in soft whisper, or in our loud hollers of prayer sculpt us into the vessels that God want us to be. And may the holler and echo of our prayers restore us and set us on right paths. And may our prayer-filled lives extend outward to touch and heal a broken and hurting world. A world in need of the holy echo of God’s Word.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful.

Alleluia! Amen.

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