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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
There is an old story told in Catholic parishes across America. On a busy street in New York City, a man hustled across an intersection and was just about to reach the other side when he was hit by a bus. He lay dying on the sidewalk as a crowd gathered around. “A priest. Somebody get me a priest!” the man gasped. A policeman checked the crowd, but there was no priest, no minister, no man of God of any kind. “A priest, please!” repeated the dying man. Then out of the crowd stepped a little old Jewish man of at least 80 years. “Mr. Policeman,” said the man, “I’m not a priest. I’m not even a Catholic. But for 50 years now I’ve been living behind St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church on First Avenue, and every night I listen to the Catholic litany. Maybe I can be of some comfort to this man.” The policeman agreed and brought the gentleman over to where the dying man was lying. He knelt down, leaned over the injured man and said in a solemn voice: “B-4. I-19. N-38. G-54. O-72.”
Of course, this morning gospel’s lesson is not about bingo- although in my childhood, I was convinced it was. Somewhere in my Sunday School upbringing, our superintendent must have taught us that playing bingo to raise money for the church was a grave sin. On Friday evenings, however, we often went with our Catholic neighbors to the Knights of Columbus to play bingo. I was afraid that Jesus was going to appear some Friday night overturning the bingo tables, sending the cards flying all over the floor and spilling the little numbers out of the spinning cage that held them. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Jesus would shout as he tipped over the cash boxes and the popcorn popper. But this morning’s lesson is not about bingo. Jesus’ disruption that day in the temple was a powerful testimony of Jesus’ desire to restore the practice of faith to its core. As important and as colorful as the sacrifices in the temple had become, it was not the purpose of God’s house.
On Ash Wednesday we began our Lenten journey reflecting on the nature of our prayer life and meditating on the treasure we have been given in the Lord’s Prayer. Over the last three weeks, we have pondered the reasons that we should pray and Jesus’ own invitation that God should be as close and as intimate as a loving Father. We have considered the occasions when we should pray and how we should seek ways to let God’s holy name in heaven be made known on earth. Last week, we reflected on our calling as disciples to proclaim the coming kingdom in words and deeds. Today, I would like to meditate on the petition, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and to consider the ways in which you may invite God to empower you to do his will.
“Thy will be done.” It might be said that this is the one petition that Jesus not only taught his disciples to pray, but it is the petition which he also regarded as the ruling principle for his life. Throughout St. John’s gospel we hear Jesus’ words echoing this sentiment, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work. “ And again, “I seek not my own will, but the will of the one sent me.” Such an attitude of humility and obedience was fully in keeping with the Jewish faith tradition. The greatest thing in the world was the Law, and the instruction in God’s way. Doing God’s will, therefore, was not something to be afraid of or avoided. Rather, doing the Lord’s will and embracing his teaching was the highest calling.
And yet for most of us, today, these very words are the most difficult words to say. Perhaps we envision ourselves as the Granthams and Crawleys of Downton Abbey ordering our servants
about, and hearing them respectfully answer, “Yes, My Lord, Thy Will be Done.” Certainly, Jesus wouldn’t expect us to utter these words. Or perhaps it is because we know so well the meaning of these words from Jesus’ final hours in the Garden of Gethsemane. We remember poignantly his wrestling with death and his request that God should take this cup away from him. But then Jesus offered his word of complete submission “Not my will, Lord, but thy will be done.”
Unfortunately, life is often quite severe and simple. As much as we may try to avoid it, Jesus’ faithful followers are not spared the pain and suffering of this world. When we face some difficult trial, some hard choice, or some painful sorrow, we might prefer running away. But it is in these words, “Thy will be done,” that we pray that God might give us the strength to remain faithful and strong and to do his will.
In St. John’s gospel, we hear the story of the day when Jesus was the angriest he ever was as a human being. He was so mad and hostile that he pulled out a whip and drove the cattle and sheep out of the temple and overturned the money changers tables. This is certainly not the image of meek and lowly Jesus submitting obediently to the voice of a master. Instead, he was passionate and angry. Jesus caught them in the act of profaning and ruining his Father’s house. They were making it into a market place. This was not about bingo or raffle to support the church’s benevolence. Jesus came to the temple to draw God’s beloved children back to his loving heart. But there he discovered that the leaders of the temple were distorting the very purpose of God’s holy house.
There are times when you and I, when we can all become intensely angry. It happens when you are away on vacation and you return to discover that your house has been broken into. It happens in the course of war, when some soldiers slip in from the jungle or desert and capture young children and force them to become human shields. It happens when ancient and sacred objects are desecrated as the spoils of war. We witness this every day in the Middle East, and in places around the world. And we experience this in our own country, when we see acts of injustice, prejudice and racism waged against our own neighbors- simply because of the color of their skin, or their confession of faith. So my friends, what are we supposed to when we are angry about the distortions and injustices in our world? Are we truly expected to do God’s will?
In his Explanation to the Lord’s Prayer, Martin Luther wrote that “God’s good and gracious will comes about without our prayer, but we ask in prayer that that God’s will may come about in and among us.” So when you pray, you are encouraged to ask that God may strengthen you and keep you steadfast in his word and faith until the end of your life. And yet, still you may be wondering, but how am I to pray for God’s strength to do his will?
For nearly 30 years, one of the most important and influential prayers for me has been Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.” I saw the prayer printed in Russian, just a few weeks ago at an AA meeting in Vladivostok. For those who have attended a 12-step program, reciting the Serenity Prayer comes as natural as breathing. So it may come as a surprise to learn that the prayer was not written for a recovery program, but that it was originally penned as a response to the tragic and destructive evil of Nazi Germany.
The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a first-generation German-American, was caught in the ethical predicament faced by many German émigrés living in the United States. They were safe from persecution in America, but were powerless to fight back in Germany. Two of his closest colleagues and friends, both Germans, were teachers at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich made differing decisions. Bonhoeffer chose to return to Germany, while Tillich chose to stay in the US. Bonhoeffer was engaged in the resistance against Hitler and was hanged in 1945 just weeks before the end of the war, while Tillich survived and is remembered for encouraging and rallying his countrymen in Germany to keep up the good fight of resistance against the Nazi regime on broadcasts via the Voice of America.
The original version of the Serenity Prayer was offered by Niebuhr at the conclusion of a sermon he delivered at tiny Union Church in Heath, Massachusetts in 1943. He had already used some phrases in earlier writings, and it would be edited in the generation to come. But in the original prayer, Niebuhr pondered such questions as what would become of the Christian faith in Germany, and the legacy of Martin Luther the Reformation in a world where theologians and church leaders had either been outlawed or corrupted by evil. And so he began his prayer:
“God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. Living one day at a time, Enjoying one moment at a time, Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, Taking, as Jesus did, This sinful world as it is, Not as I would have it, Trusting that You will make all things right, If I surrender to Your will, So that I may be reasonably happy in this life, And supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.”
My friends, you and I will face challenges in this world as well. There will be occasions when it may seem easier to turn away from God’s will and to find an easier course. But as you pray to discern and to do God’s will, pray that he will instead give you a rich abundance of serenity, courage and wisdom. This is the strength you will need to face today’s moral, physical and ethical challenges. There will be hours of frustration and anger to be sure, but remember, Jesus came himself to the temple in Jerusalem to restore the past and to overturn every barrier that separated us from God. And he is not done yet. In time, he will turn over your barrier in your life as well. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.