Ordinary Times, Ordinary Practices: Prayer – Sermon from 7/20/2014

Beginning: Introduction to the Series

Ordinary – that’s not really a word that gets too many people pumped up. Ordinary doesn’t often lift the masses to excitement. When we think of ordinary, our minds turn towards people like us, places like this. “You know, we’re just ordinary people in an ordinary worship service.” For some reason, ordinary just seems to lack intrigue and drama to us. Ordinary just can’t compel our attention quite like the extraordinary. That’s what we’ve grown to like. I’ll be the first to admit how much I absolutely love stories about the extraordinary. It’s hard for me to express just how much pleasure I get from watching super hero movies. I love them all – Batman, Ironman, Thor… you name it and I’ve probably watched it and loved it. There’s just something so fun about watching all of those extraordinary people doing all of those crazy things and saving the world from super villains. Even though we know it’s not real, and it could never happen, at least when I see people being extraordinary, it makes me want to be a super human, too.

I think this is a big part of the reason why sports are so compelling to our society. If you’re like me and you love basketball, how could you not watch Lebron James play and think, “My goodness, that man is incredible. I wish that I could do that.” And as I sat and watched the World Cup over the past few weeks, I was just so overtaken by Lionel Messi from Argentina. As I watched him play, I just couldn’t stop thinking, “That guy is my age, and he’s already become the very best in the whole world at what he does. What have I been doing with my life?”

Extraordinary people, extraordinary places, and extraordinary feats, honestly, just make my little ordinary life feel a little mundane at times. Hear the good news, though, friends: God is a big fan of ordinary. For some reason God chooses over and over again to use ordinary people, ordinary places, and ordinary practices to accomplish his work in the world.

The idea of the power of the ordinary is actually a longstanding part of the Church’s identity. It’s built right into our liturgical cycles. The best example of this is the church year. We have our own year-long calendar with our own seasons. Advent and Lent are the two big, extraordinary seasons we observe every year in the Christian calendar. They are important because they help orient us on the God we worship. But the majority of the Christian year, thirty-three weeks of it in fact, we find ourselves in what is called Ordinary Time. That’s actually what it’s called… Ordinary Time. Set in between the big events like Christmas and Pentecost, Ordinary Time is when the church is about its everyday mission and everyday task of forming disciples and becoming better followers of Jesus. It’s not fancy or elaborate, but the church couldn’t function properly without Ordinary Time and the practices that we develop and habituate during it.

We are currently in one of those long stretches of Ordinary Times. So for this week and the next two weeks, we’re going to let Ordinary Time be our guide as we focus on three very ordinary practices that can shape and increase our faith, empower this congregation to more fully live out God’s mission in the community, and give us a deeper, more renewed sense of Christ’s love for this world. These three ordinary practices should be making up the foundation of who we are as the Body of Christ. They are prayer, fellowship with other believers, and time in the holy scriptures. Taking the time to invest in these practices is crucial if we want to be faithful followers of Jesus in all of life’s situations.

Today, we look at what might be the most ordinary practice of any religion: Prayer.

And to get a better idea of what we mean by prayer in the Christian faith, I’d like to turn to a story in the Old Testament about Jacob. The scripture comes from Genesis 28:10-19. Before I read it though, let me give you a little context. In this passage we see Jacob, son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham. His brother Esau has threatened to kill him because Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright for a bowl of pea soup. Out of fear for his life, Jacob is fleeing to Haran under the pretense that he must go there to find a wife. It is on that journey to Haran that we find him in chapter 28 of Genesis.

Scripture: Genesis 28:10-19

Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “how awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.

This is the word of God for us the people of God. Thanks be to God.

The Not-So-Ordinary:

After all my talk about the ordinary, our passage undoubtedly comes off as anything but that. The extraordinary just always seems to catch our attention first. We can’t help ourselves. Here, we’ve got some incredible things going on for sure. The most elaborate is the dream of Jacob. If you happened to notice the art we placed on the front of your bulletins, I think the artist captured both the bizarre and majestic nature of the dream. However you perceive it, though, the dream is nothing but extraordinary. Just imagine what’s going on. There is the earth below and heaven above. And in between them, even connecting the two together, there is this massive ladder. And as if the ladder weren’t enough, on this ladder we see angels – these majestic heavenly beings – going up and down and up and down.

Then, there’s God. This isn’t a voice of God from on high. It’s actually God standing there right beside Jacob. We don’t get to hear what God looks like, but the fact that God is being depicted as physically present is extraordinary. It’s not often in the Old Testament that we see an image like this.

Finally, we hear what I think might be the most extraordinary part of this whole passage. The promise that God makes to Jacob is one filled with sensational commitments. I want to read it to you again so you really hear what all it entails. God says to Jacob, “The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.” First, God is going to give Jacob and all of his descendants the land which he’s currently on, a land on which he has no claim and is really only passing through. Second, Jacob’s descendants will be so many that they’ll be like the dust of the earth, spreading in all directions. To not only ensure Jacob’s lineage would continue, but that it would flourish and spread like this is an incredible promise from God. Third and finally, we hear that everyone, every family, will be blessed because of Jacob and his offspring. Jacob is going to get a name that endures forever. His legacy will be such that no generation will go by without knowing of him.

Everything about this scene appears to be extraordinary. However, once we train ourselves to see through these seemingly extraordinary encounters, you get the opportunity to see a very ordinary truth that is pertinent to our daily lives.

The Ordinary in the Extraordinary:

The ornate dream is what stands out to us, first. That’s fine, and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying this beautiful image. But what we can’t do is let this extraordinary scene distract us from what God is trying to teach us through these majestic visions. In order to glean this teaching, I want to demystify it just a little bit by focusing on three different aspects of the passage. Those are: Time and place, the meaning of the dream, and Jacob’s response.

Time and place are important because of just how ordinary they are. Jacob is just simply going about the routine of his day. He’s on the road traveling to a city called Haran, when he looks up and notices that the sun is starting to set. The Bible says he’s just there to sleep. There’s nothing important about the place. It’s just where he happened to be when the sun went down. In fact, I think my very favorite detail about this whole passage is what the name of the town is. It’s called Luz. I don’t know about you, but I think that is just hilarious. I can’t imagine a less intriguing name for a town than Luz. But Jacob is there, with no intentions of standing out and certainly not expecting the God of all heaven and earth to visit him in a dream. He grabs a suitable rock for a pillow, which seems uncomfortable to me, and he slips it under his head in order to have an ordinary night of sleep. Jacob probably feels no different than most of us here on occasions. He’s at the end of a long, hard day and he’s just wanting some sleep so he can wake up and do it all again tomorrow.

And then he dreams. And it is a peculiar dream, but it’s meaning professes a profound and simple truth: No matter who we are, no matter where we are, we have access to God. Jacob’s dream illustrates this as a ladder. This great expanse that seems to keeps us, the people of earth, disconnected from the powers of heaven, above, has been bridged. This image is one connecting the ordinary to the heavenly. This is our invitation to be in communication with God. This is our invitation to understand that God isn’t tied down to a particular place, but that God is available for you anytime and anywhere. This, friends, is our invitation to pray.

Jacob understands this truth. His immediate response upon awaking from this dream is to pray. So he awakens with a prayer of praise, proclaiming God’s presence – “Surely The Lord is in this place! – and I didn’t even know it!” Not only does he offer this prayer, but he physically commemorates the site to announce that God is present even in Luz. With nothing but a rock that he used as a pillow, this simple and ordinary piece of the terrain, Jacob builds an alter. He’s making sure everyone knows that not only is God in this place, but that the faithful can and should be offering their prayers everywhere.

Jacob’s Lesson:

Jacob’s prayer and alter teach us that the first, most natural and ordinary response to sensing the presence of God is to pray. Jacob’s prayer was one of praise. Yours may not be. There are many ways to pray. There are formal prayers and there are spontaneous prayers. There are spoken prayers and there are silent prayers. There are kneeling prayers and there are standing prayers. There are centering prayers and there are euphoric prayers. They all have this in common: They are the ordinary response to God’s presence in our lives. If you claim to know of God and if you identify as a Christian, then I believe that you’ve got to pray and pray often. When we don’t we can forget that God is never too far away to hear us. He’s never too distant to convey his love for you and his expectations on your life. But communication is key, and prayer is our line of communication.

I know that doing this isn’t as easy as I’m making it sound. Trust me when I tell you I know how hard it is to maintain an active life of prayer. It is the ordinary practice that I find the most difficult. I sometimes get lost in my words, I get vain and think I look and sound silly, or I just forget that God’s there and cares enough to listen to me. Sometimes I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be praying for. I get that praying is hard for a lot of people. But I’m here to tell you that it’s worth the effort you put into it. Since I’ve become your pastor, I’ve prayed for this church and community daily. I’ve prayed for direction and inspiration and that the Holy Spirit would fill us all to a point of response. I’ve prayed for our sick and injured. I’ve prayed that I will be a good pastor to you.

I want you to know this because I want you to know that you have somebody praying for this place and this congregation every day. I also want you to know so you can believe it’s possible and do it, too. I want you to know that in my dedication to this ordinary practice, I find myself to be more in tune with what’s happening in this world. I feel a tangible compassion, joy, and empathy for humanity. I hurt when I see hurting and I find joy in people rejoicing.

Here this, friends. What I’ve found to be the truest of all is that this simple, ordinary practice of prayer is one of the best ways to enter into the extraordinary presence of God. This ordinary practice connects you to our extraordinary God. Today, I want to invite you into this extraordinary connection with me. I want you to join me in this ordinary practice so that you can join me in these feelings of joy, compassion, and empathy. That way we can join together in discerning who God is calling us to serve.

I want you to find time to pray and I want you to know who and what to pray for. Come here to the church on Tuesdays at 1:00 for our prayer card ministry. Take your bulletins home and pray over the list of cares and concerns. Pray for me. Pray for Bayard. Pray for the entire church staff. Pray for Vacation Bible School going on next week.

Our Bishop, Rev. Mike Lowry just sent out an email this week asking for prayers about how the Methodist Church should act in response to our current humanitarian crisis with unaccompanied children crossing into the U.S. Pray for that and pray for those kids. Pray for their families and pray for the places from which they’ve come. Just pray.

As the most ordinary of Christian practices, praying can turn you into the most ordinary kind of Christian… and that’s very good news. God loves the ordinary. It is the ordinary who carry the power of Christ with them daily, who seek to live in peace with one another, and who transform desperation and injustice into joy. Let’s pray that we can all be ordinary Christians during this Ordinary Time, together.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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