Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sermon: "The Politics of Prayer" (Delivered 2-8-09)

Opening Words
[These opening words are loosely adapted from a portion of the sermon delivered by Sharon Watkins at the National Cathedral on 1/21/2009.]

There is a story attributed to Cherokee wisdom:
One evening a grandfather was teaching his young grandson about the internal battle that each person faces.
“There are two wolves struggling inside each of us,” the old man said.
“One wolf is vengefulness, anger, resentment, self-pity, fear . . .
“The other wolf is compassion, faithfulness, hope, truth, love . . .”
The grandson sat, thinking, then asked: “Which wolf wins, Grandfather?”
His grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”
Feeding and fasting… each is a type of spiritual practice, a form of prayer. Eating is communion, the breaking of bread. Fasting is a form of cleansing, a foreswearing of harmful habits.

In financial hard times, our instinct is flight – to hunker down, to turn inward, to hoard what little we can get our hands on, to be fearful of others who may take the resources we need. In hard financial times, which fast do we choose? The fast that placates our hunkered-down soul – or the fast that reaches out to our sister and our brother?

In international hard times, our instinct is to fight – to pick up the sword, to seek out enemies, to build walls against the other. Which fast do we choose? The fast that takes us away from the common table of humanity or the fast that removes anger and vengeance from our hearts?

[This prayer is an adaptation of the prayer delivered by Gene Robinson at the inaugural celebration on 1/19/2009.]

O God of our many understandings, we pray that we will…

Be blessed with tears – the tears that come from having our hearts truly opened to the pain and the hurt of this world.

Bless us also with anger – at discrimination, at home and abroad, in all of its forms and guises that cause anyone to separate another from the fabric of humanity.

Bless us with patience – and the knowledge that the road to what we envision, if our vision be worthy, will be long.

Bless us with humility – open to understanding that our own needs must always be balanced with those of the world.

Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance – replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences, and an understanding that in our diversity, we are stronger.

Bless us with compassion and generosity – remembering that every religion’s God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable in the human community, whether across town or across the world.

Before I get to the meat of this sermon, there are a few sayings that I want to ask you to keep in the forefront. The sayings come from the sixth chapter of the Matthew’s Gospel and are attributed to Jesus:
“Be careful not to parade your religion before others; if you do, no reward awaits you in heaven.”

“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; they love to say their prayers standing up in synagogues and at street corners for everyone to see them… But when you pray, go into a room by yourself, shut the door, and pray… in secret.”

“In your prayers do not go babbling on like the heathen, who imagine that the more they say the more likely they are to be heard. Do not imitate them.”
Fast forward about two-thousand years. Our focus this morning is on the inauguration of Barack Obama and on the inauguration festivities that surrounded that cold morning on January 20th, less than three weeks ago. More specifically, we will focus on the role of prayer, and especially the role of public prayer, in these events. And if you are starting to feel chafed that this sermon will be all about Obama, take a second and chill out. The inauguration is the context, not the content. And, it is important to be able to distinguish between these two things.

Let me briefly set the scene. During an inauguration ceremony there are traditionally two acts of religious speech: an invocation and a benediction. Other elements include taking the oath of office, the inaugural address, the reading of a poem written for the occasion, and music. The event takes place within a larger celebration that includes parades, balls, special meals and so on and so forth.

Let me introduce you to the four principal religious figures who took part in the inauguration festivities: Rick Warren, minister of the evangelical and non-denominational Saddleback Church in suburban Los Angeles, was chosen by Obama to deliver the invocation. Joseph Lowery, an 87 year old Methodist minister and civil rights hero, was selected to deliver the benediction.

Rounding out our cast of characters are two other clerics, Gene Robinson, an Episcopalian Priest from New Hampshire, who was the Episcopalian Church’s first openly gay Bishop. Robinson delivered a prayer at the beginning of the celebrity filled inauguration party held the night before. Since prayers don’t get good ratings, HBO decided to begin its coverage of the celebration after Robinson had delivered his invocation. On the other side of inauguration Tuesday, Obama’s first full day in office began with a Wednesday prayer service at the National Cathedral. While various faiths were represented and had speaking roles, the preacher was Sharon Watkins, President of the Disciples of Christ denomination. In Robinson, Warren, Lowery and Watkins, Obama selected a tremendously diverse group (well, a tremendously diverse group of Protestant ministers) to offer prayers.

There is something you may not know about Barack Obama and prayer. Barack Obama’s campaign had a rule that they followed with immense and intense discipline. Every Obama sanctioned campaign event began with a prayer. When Obama spoke to a large crowd in Kansas City last October, Reverend Bob Hill of Community Christian Church on the Plaza offered the invocation. When Obama spoke in Golden, Colorado, my UU colleague Peter Morales delivered the invocation.

It occurs to me that I might also mention who offered the prayers at prior inaugurations. I had no idea so I looked it up and discovered that Billy Graham offered the inauguration prayers for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, both George Bush the 41st and George Bush the 43rd, as well as for Bill Clinton. I have no idea who prayed at the inauguration of Ford or Carter.

I probably wouldn’t be preaching this sermon, however, if it were not for the fact that Rick Warren delivered the invocation. Obama’s selection of Warren did not sit well with many members of the Democratic Party’s base. This dissatisfaction centered on Warren’s support for Proposition 8, the anti- gay marriage ballot initiative that passed in California and was pretty much the only blemish for the Democratic Party on Election Day back in November. Warren is a cultural conservative on issues like abortion and gay marriage. He is also probably the most recognizable religious figure in the country.

Despite Warren's conservatism on some social issues, it is arguable that he represents a change in the evangelical movement. He does not come across as angry or confrontational, unlike other prominent evangelicals such as Pat Robertson or James Dobson. He certainly lives very differently than famous evangelists like Jim Bakker. In the 1980s Bakker and his cohorts amassed enormous amounts of wealth, bought planes, and constructed church “retreat centers” that were indistinguishable from luxury resorts. Warren, by contrast, lives in a modest home, drives a modest car, and practices what is known as reverse tithing. That means he gives ninety percent of what he earns to charity and lives off ten percent. Of course, he is the author of a book, The Purpose Driven Life, that has sold tens of millions of copies and he makes a lot of money selling all his various Purpose Driven products. At the same time, Warren takes no salary from the church he founded, The Saddleback Church, which now has around 35,000 members and is one of the ten largest churches in the United States. In fact, when it became clear that he could live off his book royalties and other sources of income he pledged to repay the church all the money they had ever paid him. There is a flip side, however, which is that Warren legally avoided paying income tax for about an entire decade, winning his case against the IRS and forcing the IRS to change the tax code for clergy.

Even though Warren’s congregation is conservative on cultural issues, those issues do not dominate. Issues like poverty and the environment attract a lot more attention. Warren is often lauded for his work battling HIV/AIDS in Africa and, at the same time, I doubt whether he has developed the type of understanding of health policy or human sexuality that is required to do that work effectively.

So, even though this report card on Warren is nuanced, there is something about him that I believe. I believe Warren is capable of changing his mind. I believe Warren is capable of a change of heart. That is a feeling that I have. And I do not have the same feeling about the Pope, or the President of the Latter Day Saints, or James Dobson, or Pat Robertson, or Jerry Johnston, or Fred Phelps.

So, what about this decision to ask Warren to pray at the ordination? What was Obama’s thought process there? You could make a case for several theories.

Perhaps it was a political gamble. Even though it was a decision that would anger many of his die hard supporters, maybe Obama thought that he could gain a listening ear from cultural conservatives by asking Warren to pray. Maybe it was symbolic: a way for Obama to indicate that he is, in fact, open to listening to a broad cross-section of people.

I want to spend a minute or two looking at Warren’s prayer itself and then return to the question of what it meant for him to offer this prayer.

Warren’s invocation was 486 words long, or about one fourth of the length of this sermon. It was twice as long as a prayer should be (in my opinion.) And yet, it was one hundred words shorter than Lowery’s benediction almost one hundred words shorter than Gene Robinson’s invocation delivered the previous day.

If I were responsible for scoring Warren’s prayer, I would give him respectable marks for content. There were no major flubs or glaring embarrassments. Even though our theologies differ, there was nothing in his prayer that was impossible for me to translate into religious language that would be comfortable for most Unitarian Universalists. I would also found his invocation to be appropriate. At the outset, one of the ways he refers to God is as the “compassionate and merciful one” which some have taken as an inclusive nod to Muslims. When he says in his prayer that our nation is united by a commitment to freedom and justice for all, when he asks that we be forgiven for when we fail to treat our fellow human beings with the respect they deserve, and when he asks that we achieve humility in our approaches and civility in our attitudes, even when we differ, I want to believe that he is sincere despite his glaring failure to practice what he preached when it came to standing up for equality for marriage equality in California. I do appreciate the switch he makes as he ends the prayer. When he talks about Jesus he switches to “I” language instead of “we” language. I thought that was appropriate. And, if you are upset that he ended with the Lord’s Prayer, I would ask you this question: If the speaker had been Hindu and ended his prayer by reciting a passage in Sanskrit that he identified as being a part of his own tradition, would you have been equally upset?

(Warren’s artistry, however, seemed to be sorely lacking. His oratory, to me, seemed flat and clunkish and not at all affecting. It seemed like a decent prayer by a speaker who appeared off his game.)

So, where have I been going for approximately the last sixteen hundred words (or about three times as many words as Joseph Lowery used to deliver his benediction)? If you remember, I began this sermon by quoting Jesus’ words against praying in public. My decision to preface my sermon with those words was not to be contrarian or glib.

In some way, those words from Jesus speak to my feelings not just about Rick Warren but about all of those offering prayers as a part of the inaugural festivities. “They love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues or on the street corners for everyone to hear them.” “In your prayers do not go babbling on like the heathen, who imagine that the more they say the more likely they are to be heard. Do not imitate them.”

Traditionally, these lines have been interpreted as an instruction not to be showy in your spiritual life, “not to parade your religion before others.” This traditional interpretation is not a bad one. Indeed, I’ve heard that there is often an inconsistency, a kind of hypocrisy, between public religious pronouncements and private actions.

But, I want to suggest a slightly different interpretation of Jesus’ teachings here. I want to argue that it is the way of prayer not to be able to satisfy some of the public needs of the occasion. A prayer is not sufficient to what the event requires. This is true no matter how artfully the prayer is said, no matter how long it goes on.

What do I mean by this? Prayer is a communication. But, to whom? Often times, a prayer is a communication to God, which we might also call the great mystery, spirit of life, thou. And, I also happen to believe that prayer can be a communication within our selves, with our truest selves, with the ground of our being. But when prayer is between people, when it is transpersonal, we have to be cautious.

For example, all this year, working with Anne Griffiths (our Intern Minister), I’ve been remembering my own experience as a hospital chaplain. In that role I was invited by patients to pray for them and with them. When someone would ask me to pray for them, I would ask back, “For what do you want me to pray?” If I didn’t ask this, I would probably wind up praying a prayer that missed them. In our church, after candlelighting, I invite us to pray and sometimes I hit and sometimes I miss. It works for some of you and not for others. But it is my standard practice to end the time of prayer with silence, which for many of you is probably a chance to name the prayers that I omitted.

If you watched the inauguration, you will recall that during the first few lines of Joseph Lowery’s benediction, the camera cut away to a church in the south where tears flowed from a woman’s eyes. He had hit that perfect note where what he was saying was exactly what she had in her heart.

But the point is that it is not always like this. And Jesus’ words against showy, blustery, verbose prayers can be read equally as speaking against those types of prayers that fail to connect, that pretend to be communications between people but really are not.

Was it a savvy political move to have Rick Warren offer the invocation? Perhaps. Was it a move towards an administration that will listen to all voices? Symbolically, maybe. An actual move towards dialogue, towards having a conversation that involves many different voices, would mean creating a leadership team to address poverty and bringing Warren to the table, which I think he would do well at. It would mean finding those issues of public policy where evangelicals have something really important to bring to the table and inviting them to the table. Prayers do not and cannot substitute for dialogue.

As for Lowery’s prayer, man, I don’t know about you but I could listen to that guy talk for weeks. But, at the same time I also try to remember that just because he reached me does not mean that he reached everyone. And, I should really try very hard to remember that. We should all try to remember that.

[My benediction is adapted from Joseph Lowery's benediction at the inauguration ceremony on 1/20/2009.]

And as we leave this mountain top, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our community. We go now to walk together as children, pledging that we won't get weary of our duty in all the days ahead.