May All Your Prayers Be Answered

This sermon was originally preached by Rev. James Morasco on August 19, 2018. 

Intimacy is not a happy medium. It is a way of being in which the tension between distance and closeness is dissolved and a new horizon appears. Intimacy is beyond fear.
— Henri Nouwen
O God; listen to my prayer.
From the ends of the earth I call to you; lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe.
I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.
For you have heard my vows, O God;
You have given me the heritage of those who fear your name.
I sing praise to your name and fulfill my vows day after day. Amen.
— Psalm 61
God will repay everyone according to what they have done. To those who by patiently doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Gentile; but glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.
— Romans 2: 6-11

I don’t know about you, but I would never claim to have all the answers.  I’ve said it here many times; my truth is just that – my truth.  Not right or wrong but maybe different from the next persons. After all, people can grow up in the same household, experience the same environment; same parents, and have two different recollections of what went on. In the legal field they say an eye witness is one of the least reliable forms of evidence because each of us focuses on different things.  Twelve witnesses to the same crime may give you twelve different accounts of what they saw.  And so it is, I believe, with religion.  Someone asked me why there are so many religions?  Why, if there is one God, we don’t all worship the same, believe the same things?  Why do we fight over this, even kill over this? 

Well as you know, I believe no one has the right to say theirs is the only way to worship or to believe.  For me, religious rituals are the way we express our relationship to our higher power.  Again, not right or wrong – just different. I’ve sometimes experienced the connection of my higher power during rituals and experiences that had nothing to do with my own belief system. But taking the opportunity when it is offered to me has enriched my own understanding and brought me closer to God.  I believe also that is why people come in so many different varieties. We all experience life differently, but oh how our experience is enriched when we learn from someone that doesn’t share our same understanding of things.

Theologian Richard Rohr writes:

The great mystics tend to recognize that Whoever God Is, he or she does not need our protection or perfect understanding. All our words, dogmas, and rituals are like children playing in a sandbox before Infinite Mystery and Wonderment. If anything is true, then it has always been true; and people who sincerely search will touch upon the same truth in every age and culture, while using different language, symbols, and rituals to point us in the same direction. The direction is always toward more love and union—in ever widening circles.  Listen to these two stories of creation;
In the beginning was only Being; One without a second. Out of himself he brought forth the cosmos and entered into everything in it. There is nothing that does not come from him. Of everything he is the inmost Self. —Chandogya Upanishad, Chapter 6, 2:2-3, Hindu
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Through him all things came to be, and not one thing had its being but through him. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwells among us. —John 1:1, 3, 14

Two different religions but the same message.

From his tradition of Judaism, Rabbi Rami Shapiro offers this rather simple explanation of these profound texts:

“Just as the same lump of clay can take on infinite form and remain itself unchanged, so God takes on infinite form while never being other than God.”

Lee Woofenden writes:

If God is infinitely loving and infinitely wise, as the theologians and mystics of all the major world religions say, don’t you think God would do a good job of providing religion for the people on earth? Don’t you think God would provide a way for all people to experience God’s love and wisdom?
We could argue until the cows come home about which religion is the best or truest, and it would be a monumental waste of breath. God is not concerned about which religion is better than other religions. God is concerned with how well each religion brings its people closer to God, and how well each religion moves its believers to love and serve their fellow human beings.
So the short answer is: Each religion is best for the people who believe in it. If God truly is loving and wise, wouldn’t God provide every person and every culture with the religion that works best for them? Would a loving God really leave vast segments of the world’s population out in the cold? We humans come in all different varieties. And we need a variety of religions to help us find God, faith, and compassion for our fellow human beings, each in our own unique way.
It doesn’t matter what name we call God (as long as it’s nice!). No matter what name we use, it is the same God we’re calling on. There’s only one of ’em, you know!
And no matter how many different ways we may hear God’s voice, it is the same message being given through all the religions of the earth: Love God and love your fellow human beings. Live by the truth, live with compassion. Do not do what is evil and say what is false, but follow God’s commandments and engage in good deeds of useful service for others.

This week we saw the passing of Aretha Franklin. She was the daughter of a Baptist minister and began her singing debut as a child singing in the choir at her father’s church.  Years ago Martha and I were lucky enough to attend one of her performances at Shea’s in Buffalo.  As the coverage of her life story is aired, we are reminded of the amazing impact she has had, not only on music, but on our culture.  She was a friend and colleague of all the Civil Rights Leaders of her time.  She dined with presidents and world leaders. She was awarded with great honors, medals, accolades for the gift her voice brought to the world.  Her rendition of the song “Respect” spoke not only to women’s rights, but the rights of all humankind. Still, her story goes much deeper than that. To those that knew her best, her story is told through all the people she helped along the way.  She was known to minister to people in some of the poorest neighborhoods of Detroit.  As one person put it, she “was everyone’s mother, everyone’s grandmother – she never turned her back on anyone”.  Now I didn’t realize how much she had touched me until I started to tear up listening to the newscasts.  I was thinking about how much we need to hear her message at this time in our history. She said it herself in an interview, “Everyone, no matter who they are, needs respect."

The Shipwreck

- Author Unknown

A voyaging ship was wrecked during a storm at sea. Only two of the men on it were able to swim to a small, desert island. The two survivors, not knowing what else to do, agreed that they had no other recourse but to pray to God. To find out whose prayer was more powerful, they agreed to divide the territory between them and stay on opposite sides of the island.
The first thing they prayed for was food. The next morning, the first man saw a fruit-bearing tree on his side of the land, and he was able to eat its fruit. The other man's parcel of land remained barren. After a week, the first man was lonely and he decided to pray for a wife. The next day, another ship was wrecked, and the only survivor was a woman who swam to his side of the land. On the other side of the island, there was nothing.
Soon the first man prayed for a house, clothes, more food. The next day, like magic, all of these were given to him. However, the second man still had nothing. Finally, the first man prayed for a ship, so that he and his wife could leave the island. In the morning, he found a ship docked at his side of the island. The first man boarded the ship with his wife and decided to leave the second man on the island. He considered the other man unworthy to receive God's blessings, since none of his prayers had been answered.
As the ship was about to leave, the first man heard a voice from heaven booming,
"Why are you leaving your companion on the island?"
"My blessings are mine alone, since I was the one who prayed for them," the first man answered. "His prayers were all unanswered and so he does not deserve anything."
"You are mistaken!" the voice rebuked him. "He had only one prayer, which I answered. If not for that, you would not have received any of my blessings."
"Tell me," the first man asked the voice, "what did he pray for that I should owe him anything?"
"He prayed that all your prayers be answered."

For all we know, our blessings are not the fruits of our prayers alone, but those of others praying for us.

Life is meaningless and empty without God

Some have asked me over the years why I feel so compassionate about people who I consider mistreated in our world.  Long before I considered myself a spiritual person, I always rooted for the underdog.  Whether it was for a sports team or the “outcast” I felt their pain.  It led me to experience some of what they went through every day of their lives. From my childhood- witnessing prejudice against some of my best friends who happened to be Black, locally on the Tonawanda Reservation that resembles the living conditions of a third world country, to how our country influences oppression in countries around the world. I just can’t understand how we can continue to deny our own responsibility, personally and collectively as a nation. 

As you know, my training has also been in addiction counseling. One of the hardest things to overcome, before any healing can occur, is the denial human beings build up to avoid having to deal with the truth. This is a naturally occurring survival mechanism for anyone experiencing extreme conditions. Often, the fear of the unknown keeps people from rational thinking.  But what a difference it makes once they overcome the fear. My thought is that the same mechanism is triggered to deny the rights of others. When we are taught to fear them or that somehow they are not worthy of our friendship, we build walls. They are sometimes personal, interior walls and sometimes collectively- brick and mortar walls. Perhaps, if we don’t admit it we can pretend it doesn’t exist.  Otherwise we would have to confront the truth and change.

Again from today’s New Testament reading, note the writer specifically names those that are not followers of Jesus Christ!

There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Gentile; but glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism. (Romans 2: 9–11)

“God does not show favoritism” nor should we!