A Sermon for Covenant
Pray As You Are
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
October 27, 2013
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
I wonder if the Pharisee was secretly afraid he didn’t really measure up? I could be wrong, but I tend to think that is why people get loud about their faith—they are trying to shout down their insecurities. Trusting in yourself, that you are righteousness: rather than being an overdose of confidence is generally, at its core, an expression of fear. It’s a show you put you on, perhaps to convince others, but predominately to convince yourself that you are okay.
We have been reading about this very thing in Sunday School, what Richard Rohr calls “shoring up the nonself,” or manufacturing a negative identity. “Thank God I’m not a thief or a rogue,” prays the Pharisee. Richard Rohr writes,
Those who rush to artificially manufacture their own identity often end up with hardened and overly defended edges. They are easily offended and . . . often live only in reaction to someone or something else. To them, negative identity is created quickly and feels sort of like life. Thus many people, even religious folk, settle for lives of “holier than thou” or lives consumed by hatred of their enemies. Being over and against is a lot easier than being in love.
When we consider the prayer of the publican, it’s not that we are supposed to be breast-beating mourners who never take any pride in our accomplishments but that we never stop asking for mercy or knowing that we need it. The point isn’t to wallow in your sinfulness but to acknowledge your need, to crack open your defensives and let God in. The point is to come to God as you really are.
Jesus says the tax collector stood far off, would not even look up to heaven. Most of us have known such a time where we stood far off in our prayers, where perhaps we could not bear to look heavenward, maybe couldn’t even form a prayer with our lips. Maybe all we could do was wail, make guttural groans or cover our face with our hands and make no noise at all. Maybe we were ashamed of our own actions or maybe we were shocked and rocked by tragedy or maybe we were terribly angry at God or maybe we couldn’t look to the heavens because we no longer felt there was a God up there to be looked to.
This parable says to us who have stood distant: this is a posture God does not despise—our agony, our angst, our heartache, our rage, our doubt, our naked humanness.
Here is what God cannot do much work with—the version of ourselves we have covered up with cloak after cloak of false achievement and shallow identity and fiercely defended boundaries. It is all armor to shut out pain and self-knowing and all the armor keeps out God too.
Of course Jesus isn’t suggesting we should make ourselves feel miserably about ourselves before we approach God. That is ludicrous and very unlike the party-guy Jesus was so often known for being. Jesus is saying come-as-you-are rather than come-as-you-want-people-to-think-you-are.
I do not see even a flicker of self-disclosure or brave honesty or authentic speech in this Pharisee’s prayer. He fasts twice a week, but who is he between fasts? He gives a tenth of his income, but who is he as spends the rest? He is not a thief (congratulations), a rogue (way to go), an adulterer (bravo), neither is he a tax collector (that’s all very nice), but who is he? Does he even know? Where would he start such a prayer, if he were to bring his real self out into the open?
Where would you start such a prayer, were you to bring your real self out into the open? What are the first words you would say, not up here at the mic in front of the church, but standing over there far off, alone, where you could say any and all that was in your heart? What words would you say or sounds would you make into the darkness, maybe not even knowing if you would be heard, what would pour forth?
We perhaps think the publican sounds weak and dismal, but it is the Pharisee who lives in fear, so afraid of his own inner life he ignores it entirely and puffs up his life with the fluff of good deeds done for show. He is most afraid of God, that God will not love him if he doesn’t appear just so, doesn’t perform at best. This is why he cannot go home justified, healed, or exalted—he’s praying to the wrong god and there is no power in that.
Pray all you want to the god who cares about your status and nothing will answer you but your own ego. Pray to the god who values sanitized antics over wide-awake living and god’s response will sound exactly like the voice of your overbearing mother or the screaming preacher on TV or the sinister whine of your own inner guilt complex, but you will not hear a holy word that way.
But if you bend down onto your knees and address the Great Mystery of Love, Love so large you cannot believe it is real, cannot believe that is really for you, if down there on the ground with your knees scraping the floor, with all the longing in your heart you WISH God’s love might, in fact, be big enough to include you, THEN, then you will be exalted because God will recognize you were talking to him and God never misses a genuine cry.
God is not so much interested in the bowing and the scraping but in the removal of every false pretense. Richard Rohr also says that prayer in its earliest stages is simply an experience of our core, of who we are, hidden with Christ in God. Prayer is to fling yourself at the mercy of God, often not even knowing if it will catch you when you do. Prayer is to step outside your coat of armor and be, for one sacred moment, who you really are. This does not require fancy words or special knowledge or even very much trust. Just an ounce of courage, really, to speak the honest truth to yourself and to your God.
But if that is still too hard, if you cannot imagine a you capable of getting all the way down to the bare truth about yourself, no need to fret. “Those who have exalted themselves will be humbled,” Jesus says, and this is not so much a threat as a mercy. You have to work very, very hard to stay in a place of self-exaltation forever. It becomes easy habit over time, sure, but eventually life starts to break down your defenses. Remember how most of us have stood far off in our prayers at one time or another, generally because we have faced tragedy or disappointment or disillusionment or the onset of doubt. The normal experiences of life will bring us to our knees. Bit by bit our experiences are calling us, guiding us, to the kind of honesty God can work with. If you feel buried under a mountain of cover-ups, ask to be shown who you are. Ask to be purged of all that is false. You don’t have to force yourself into richer, fuller prayer overnight. All you really have to do is respond gently to the humbling process, and believe me, the process finds you.
Otherwise, it gets tiresome and lonesome, doesn’t it, all the hiding and pretending and the effort to look like the perfect person, perfect mom, perfect employee, perfect student, perfect parent, perfect child? Perfect, perfect, perfect Pharisee who prays plastered prayers that the heavens never hear . . .
To bolster my own recovery, healing, and ever-increasing honesty, I recently walked into a Twelve Step meeting, the power of such a program being a refusal to cover anything up. Step One: Admitted that our lives had become unmanageable. Step Two: Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Sounds like it was invented by the tax collector, doesn’t it?
There are consequences to honest prayer and honest talk, no doubt. It is hard work. You have to risk rejection. You have to chance a bit of exposure. You have to face your shame. You risk rocking the boat. But there are consequences to dishonesty too, for example, losing your sense of who you really are. Or forever living a half-life. Or never finding out that God loves you as you are. Or holding on to your disdain for others because it is the only tool you’ve got for feeling good about yourself.
I want to be like the man who went down to his home justified, and don’t we all? May we come up to the temple to pray, and when we arrive, may we pray, really pray, not to the god who condemns, but to the God who saves. May we come in all our brokenness and beauty, checking nothing at the door but bringing it all to the feet of Jesus. Those who arrive humbled just might leave exalted. Amen.