Yep yep by Vicar Atticus Zavaletta
Proper 12C Sermon
In the name of God, Amen.
There’s a cartoon from the late 90s and early 2000s called King of the Hill. Some of you might have seen it. The show centers on the Hills, a middle-class American family in a fictional city in Texas. Hank Hill, the main character and protagonist, is the patriarch of his family, and works as an assistant manager at the local Propane plant. The show is funny and at times tender in its take on the ups and downs and befuddling parts of raising a family and making a life in smalltown USA. Hank has three best friends, and every day after work, they meet on the yard in front of Hank’s driveway to spend time together. What’s so funny is that the guys don’t ever really exchange words. More like, sounds. Once they’re all gathered around and each one has opened his can of beer, it starts. “Yep” one of them says. Then a few seconds later, another, “Yep.” And then another… “Yep.”
The fourth one, he always closes the dialogue with, “Mmmhmm.”
Sometimes, they go through a few rounds of this, but that is really the entirety of their exchange.
On the surface, these guys might seem gruff and overly macho, with their beer bellies, lack of ability to deal with emotion, and insistence that their sons play football. But I think they’ve hit on something beautiful--a really touching vision of friendship. Because isn’t that what friendship is all about? Letting someone know they’re not alone, and in so doing, also affirming each other’s existence in this great mysterious world. Every day after work, those friends let each other know: “I’m here,” and “you’re not alone.”
I’m thinking about friendship because this week we’re talking about prayer, which forms the basis of our relationship with God.
But you know, as much of a saving thing that it is, isn’t it odd that prayer is such a loaded thing as well?
We Christians have a lot of guilt surrounding whether we pray enough--whether we pray eloquently enough, fervently enough, often enough. It becomes more driven by a need to rid ourselves of the guilt of not praying well, than it is about seeking the refuge and nourishment that’s available to us when we come before the Lord. It all works to create an experience that is the opposite of life-giving. If Jesus only knew the can of worms he was opening when he offered to his disciples what we’ve come to know as “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Then again…. Maybe he did. Jesus also was raised in an environment where your religious and public acts either confirmed you as holy or condemned you as impure. He knew what it was like to grow up with legalism. We know that in those days, the Pharisees, which would be like pedigreed academic clergy for us, prayed a lot, publicly and very loudly. Jesus called them hypocrites and encouraged people instead to pray in private. I think he was trying to get it through to people that prayer should not be used as a measure of someone’s godliness, and that prayer wasn’t a performance that anyone needed to be graded on.
Have you noticed how brief Jesus’ prayer is? It is the opposite of wordy. Like the four friends in King of the Hill… Sometimes... prayer can be as simple as saying “help.” Or “thanks.” The writer Ann Lamott adds a third, “Wow.”
We shouldn’t be made to feel bad or inadequate for how and how often we pray. What would it be like to let go of that guilt, and instead connect with the desire that’s always there, deep inside of us, to commune with the loving power that breathed life into us, and who accompanies us every step we take?
And yet, I find myself asking, in this neighborhood, seeing the folks whose lives have been so taken over by addiction to opiates that they don’t even fill the shadow of their former selves. They stand in the beating sun begging for change to feed a monster that only desires their destruction.
How many times must they have fallen on their knees and prayed to be free? How many times must they have prayed for deliverance? As a former addict myself, I think I have an idea.
There might be something in your life now that you have been crying out to God for healing and deliverance from… and maybe you feel like all you’ve been met by is a divine silence… or indifference.
Honestly, when there is so much pain and suffering all around us, what good does prayer really do, and why do so many seem to be unanswered?
I went down to the Texas-Mexico border last month and spent time with refugees and asylum seekers that had journeyed on foot for months to get to the US, only to find out they had to wait in Mexico for their chance to apply for asylum due to a new Trump policy called “metering”--only a certain number of asylum seekers are let through each day, and it’s much less than the actual number of folks coming. The refugees were all gathered in a plaza in Matamoros, just next to the bridge to come over to the US. It was extremely hot, in the 100s, they had little food and water, there were no showers, one porta potty, and they were camped out on the ground with the few belongings they had.
After giving out snacks, I told them that though there were people in our country who were unfriendly to immigrants, there are many people in our country who love them--who are fighting for them and praying for them. You should’ve seen the look on all of their faces change in an instant, from desperation to hope, just hearing that there were people in their corner out there.
I asked them how people of faith in Baltimore could support them, what did they need. Someone said larger-sized diapers, for the kids who come who are older and developmentally delayed. They said people always brought small diapers but these older kids had no way to be kept sanitary. Another person said that snacks were great. Volunteer groups came every morning and noon time to provide breakfast and lunch, but they were still hungry, especially the kids, throughout the rest of the long days.
Then, an older lady sitting in the back rose her hand and said, simply, "Prayer. We need your prayers. Please pray for us." Other voices popped up in agreement: each one asking for prayers. "Pray for us." "Pray for us."
You know, I don’t think there’s such a thing as unanswered prayer. God might not necessarily be “obeying” our prayers. But I believe that everyday, God speaks back to us through the people and events in our lives.
Though their situations are not resolved, perhaps in the presence of each volunteer who crosses the bridge to deliver a smile or a hot meal or a cold Gatorade, God is answering some prayers for those refugees.
The point of prayer is not to get a certain result. It’s to know that we’re not alone. Just like the refugees wanting to know they aren’t alone in their time of overwhelming struggle. We all have that need.
I have a friend who grew up in a very traumatic and abusive household. She tells me how she met her lifelong best friend in junior high. Her best friend also came from a scary and harmful home, so they took refuge in each other. And as they grew up and moved out of their homes and then away to different cities, through the years of their friendship, they kept one ritual that never wavered. Every Saturday morning, no matter what was going on--whether one of them was on a book deadline, or having a baby, or going through a messy divorce, or buying an apartment--they had a phone call. Every single Saturday.
When she told me about it, I was really impacted by the kind of faithfulness they both demonstrated in that. They are now both in their late 40s, and for the last 30 years, they have put aside time to connect every Saturday morning.
I like to imagine that underneath the weekly updates--all the chatter and laughter and sometimes crying that they share over that phone line--mostly what they’re saying is: “I’m still here. I’m still messed up. I still love you.”
“I’m still here” is a way of saying: "I exist."
“I’m still messed up” is another way of saying, in the words of Pastor Lenny Duncan: "I desperately need God."
And “I still love you”? It’s another way of saying “You are not alone.”
When we pray, when we open that conversation, we deepen our friendship with our Creator. That's the deliverance. That is how Jesus teaches us we can be delivered on a daily basis. No matter how we are struggling, in the midst of our own personal pain and suffering and that of our neighbors, we reach out in our spirits to connect with God and find that no matter what we are going through, we are not doing it alone. It doesn’t mean that we won’t suffer and go through heartbreak. What it does mean is that each day we walk this Earth, we get to stand on God’s promise that we will never walk alone.
Let us find rest in that truth, then, and "draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace in our time of need.” (Heb 4:16)