Gentle Shepherd Metropolitan Community Church, Phoenix, Ariz. Written and Delivered by John Williams, Senior Deacon.
Once, long ago in a land far away, there lived four little characters who ran through a maze looking for cheese to nourish them and make them happy. Two were mice named “Sniff” and “Scurry” and two little people ≠ beings who were as small as mice but who looked and acted a lot like people today. Their names were “Hem” and “Haw.” Due to their small size, it would be easy not to notice what the four of them were doing. But if you looked closely enough, you could discover the most amazing things! Every day the mice and the little people spent time in the maze looking for their own special cheese. The mice, Sniff and Surry, possessing only rodent brains, but good instincts, searched for the hard nibbling cheese they liked, as mice often do. The two little people, Hem and Haw, used their brains, filled with many beliefs and emotions, to search for a very different kind of Cheese — with a capital C — which they believed would make them feel happy and successful.
(Excerpts of pages 26-27 of Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson, M.D.)
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled and the realm of God is at hand; repent, and believe the gospel.” And passing along by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw Simon and Andrew, the brother of Simon, casting a net in the sea; for they were fishers. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on a little farther, Jesus saw James, the son of Zebedee, and John, his brother, who were in their boat mending their nets. And immediately Jesus called to them: and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and followed Jesus.
In the first sermon of this series, Rev. Brad introduced us to the concept of prayer as connection-specifically, deep prayer as a way of enabling us to connect to our roots-to the God within us. He told us how being with and in ourselves, in quiet reflection, can reveal more to us about who we are than we could have imagined. He gave us the definition of the word “Epiphany” as meaning “a revealing.” And Rev. Brad told us how Jesus became aware of his own divine nature in order for us to know the divine in us. Jesus did that by being OPEN — open to the possibilities of the Divine within him. Openness is the elemental basis for awareness — the one critical ingredient that we can’t leave out as we pray. We found out that the ONLY way to connect to the “out there” is “in here.” It is through knowing the depths of our spirits and our hearts that we connect with the breath of the Divine within us. Just as a plant’s roots must be intact and connected securely to the part of the plant we see above ground, those roots must also be in deep communion with the soil that nurtures them and causes the plant to spring up and grow. In that same way, our deepest need is to connect with the source of whom and what we are, for that connection to our roots is what enables our growth. And we make that connection through prayer ≠ deep prayer.
In his second part in the series, Rev. Brad preached on getting in touch with ourselves through deep prayer; finding the real self, not the false self that we have accepted because of the other voices that have spoken to us. We learned from our “Who Moved My Cheese” reading in the last part of this series that we can change the way we look at change. And in so doing, we can realize the courage to change ourselves by changing the way we believe in ourselves, by changing our realization of who we really are. When we find a way to the center of ourselves, we find GOD. We then hear the voice of the one who created us and all other voices are silenced. It’s easy to surrender to those other voices and be who they say we are but when we surrender instead to deep prayer, we find our real selves because we hear the voice of the One who called us into being; the ONE who knows who we really are. And so, deep prayer is when we shed our false selves and become our true selves; when we confront the places in ourselves where we never should have gone, and find the place and self that we really are. A real power of prayer then is the power to set us FREE.
This specific part in this series, we’ll explore prayer as connection to others.
Prayer with a capital “C.”
Now, some of you may think that I’m a little off, and you’re probably sure of it if you think I really spell prayer with a “C.” But I often find that the way to deeper thought and meaning is to look beyond the obvious. Sometimes I may come back to the obvious, or I might incorporate it into my understanding of something, but even then there is always room for my own individual twist on it.
At some time, each of us has been in a place – a space – where we had a sense of being connected to someone or something beyond us. It may have been in a beautiful church or other holy place. Perhaps you visited one of the great Cathedrals, or perhaps some of you have prayed the labyrinth. It could have been anywhere that you felt that connection to some other place – to other people, and you got a sense of something holy, something special and set aside.
Rev. Brad once explained this sense of something holy and special when he told us that a place we were leaving was not holy because of us, because of the objects we use in worship or any other tangible reason. But they’re holy because of the collected prayers, tears, and joys -the collective “welcomings” and other whispers that have happened in those spaces. It is the communal acts of the hearts and spirits of those who did those acts that have been gathered within simple walls and that communal element of those gone before is what makes these spaces holy. During one Saturday devotion, while learning another tradition, we found a powerful way to recognize and demonstrate our connectedness to one another by sharing in a Native American Smudging Ceremony. This ceremony was a powerful tool for understanding connectedness as we were surrounded by the smoke of a fire – the same smoke surrounding us all as we prayed together for God’s cleansing presence in us and as we asked God to make us one so we could truly accept the promise of the Creator, told to us through St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, that “ALL things work together for good, for those who love God.”
The things I’ve talked about all illustrate human connection. But they can also illustrate a problem and this is where I might spell prayer with a “p.” We all find it easy to look at the beauty of a Cathedral or some other hallowed spot and simply feel good to be there. We can look on an experience with Native American Spirituality as merely an anthropologically interesting “thing,” very much like a trip to a museum. It’s easy to miss deeper meaning if we are not OPEN to what that may be.
In that same way, we can find prayer comforting but perhaps that comfort is only superficial, if we haven’t built it on the foundations of a true connection with our roots, with the center of our selves, and with our connection to others. We can feel good because we’ve prayed for the hungry; or because we asked God to find us a job or, heaven forbid, as an Anglican friend of mine used to say: “We sometimes are even tempted to ask God to make sure the right team wins the Super Bowl!” I’ll leave it to your imaginations as to whether God cares about who wins the Super Bowl when the world is full of starving, abandoned and abused children, terrified enslaved and mutilated women, elderly people without health care, food or medicine and a government so overly presumptuous of it’s righteousness that it can believe it has the right to kill another country’s citizens because WE don’t like their president.
I certainly don’t mean we shouldn’t pray for our own or others’ needs but that kind of prayer doesn’t necessarily create the possibility of the deep connection that we’re talking about – a SELF- and WORLD-CHANGING connection to God, to self, or to others, if it isn’t open, DEEP prayer. It is in truly deep prayer and OPENNESS that we can make those connections that count! If we are open, the connections we seek can be established. And then we won’t only be praying for the hungry, we’ll be feeding them; we won’t be praying for abused women and children, we’ll be sheltering them and providing job training and child care centers and equipping them for lives of productivity, safety, and love. We will have experienced CHANGE in ourselves and we will have found that we CAN change the world.
Some of you are old enough to remember having to tune a radio manually, you know, with a knob and a thing sliding across the numbers so you could sort of figure out where you were. Early FM radio was even more difficult. Of course FM was better but it took more work. To twist a saying from the back in the 1960s, you had to “turn on and tune in” to get what you were looking for on your radio. So it is with prayer and it’s a problem (prayer with a capital “P”) if one doesn’t pay deep attention to the voice speaking to you and work at getting the true, full connection with God that is within you.
In today’s first reading, Sniff and Scurry were content to find and eat only one kind of cheese-content with what they knew and not open to growing and changing. But Hem and Haw recognized that they had many gifts, many beliefs and emotions – many capabilities – and they decided to use those to search for Cheese, with a capital C. They didn’t limit themselves to only that which they’d done before, that with which they were already familiar, but recognized that by tapping their multitude of resources they could have ANY cheese. They could CHANGE from the familiar to a broader and more rewarding set of experiences. But that change had to come from a new, deeper way of looking at themselves and knowing that they could change to other cheese. (I encourage you to read this small 80-page book. Buy it, check it out at the library, or borrow it – but read it. It will only take an hour and I guarantee it can and will change your perception of things – of yourself – for the better.)
Today’s Gospel reading also deals with change. This is the story of Simon Peter and Andrew and how dramatic change occurred in their lives, because they were open to it, and that change led them to become the means of change for others. When Jesus told Peter and Andrew to go and become fishers of people, he was telling them that they had the power in themselves to go to teach love, and to influence others to love. But they could only do that if they first knew and loved themselves. They had to first accept the possibility of change! They had to begin to understand that the divine breath of God was in them and then discover that being with, walking with and sharing powerful moments with others could create change in them as well. Finding their root connection with the God who made them, and working through the Divine within their inner selves, created a recognition of their connection with others. And THAT served as their basis for change, through deep prayer, that would lead them to the Divine within them, they could change themselves from simple fishermen to fishers for the Kingdom of God.
We, as Peter and Andrew, can overcome the “p” – the problem – in prayer by learning to be open, by tuning in well to God’s call in and through us and welcoming the change that is necessary to complete us and to complete the connection between us and all creation. Through deep prayer (prayer with a capital “C”), prayer that opens us to change, we can become the best that we can be, in community with others. We will be, as Peter and Andrew, as James and John, as Gandhi, as Keith McIlheney and the other Saints who have gone before us. We can become tools to bring Christ’s love and justice to the unloved, the un-served, the hungry, the abused, and all the others who yearn to be lifted up.
Dr. Martin Luther King said this: “All (humans) are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
I’m going to close now with a very personal story-it’s not a great “testimony,” it’s not just simply a sermon illustration either. It IS just simply a true story of the power of prayer. It wasn’t dramatic, but in a quiet, personal time, it was a simple moment of clarity. It’s apropos to today, and I want to share it with you. This is just as I wrote it down minutes after it happened, mid-morning this past Wednesday, except that I’ve removed the person’s name:
“I was praying for a friend and I realized that what I was seeking – what I was praying for – was for God to give my friend a way of simply knowing that God had not abandoned him ever and would never abandon him. And then I realized something. I’d had an epiphany, and it was this: That before the Cosmos, the breath of life – the breath of God – was already there ready and waiting for each of us. And at that magic moment of our conception God breathed that breath into each of us, and it mixes with the breaths of air we take throughout our lives, but never really leaves us. And then, at the moment of death, when we breathe our last, it is no accident, no physical phenomena explainable by science, but it is by the design of God from the beginning that our last breath is an Exhale! At that moment our Spirit leaves to become an eternal part of creation as others begin to take it in through their acts of breathing. If that isn’t a clear enough revelation of our connection with each other and with the God of the cosmos, then I don’t know what could be.”
Amen, Shalom, and Blessed Be.
Rev. Brad Wishon was called in 1997 to serve as Pastor of Gentle Shepherd MCC, now Metropolitan Community Church Phoenix, in Arizona. An LGBT activist, he was named to Echo Magazine’s Hall of Fame in 2012 and named its Man of the Year in 2004.
In 2004, as Massachusetts became the first state to offer same-sex marriage, he was part of a local effort by clergy to help couples to try to obtain marriage licenses. When they were denied, he and others performed weddings for about 40 couples.
He was involved with No Longer Silent: Clergy for Justice, a Phoenix-area group with the mission of sharing an alternative religious perspective on homosexuality. He promoted the Phoenix Declaration, which calls for the end of LGBT discrimination.