Praying as if our lives depended on it

A sermon on Luke 18:9-14

Prayer changes things. Mostly, it changes people. Like you and me.

This week I've been praying for two groups of people. One group is closer to home. It's all those youth, including seven from All Saints', who are at Bishop Claggett Center for a spiritual renewal event called Happening. Created in the mid-1970s, Happening is a Christian experience that seeks to bring young persons and adults to a deeper relationship with God in Christ. Please pray for Stacey, Ryan, Joanna, Grace, Evan, Chris, Lexi and Rev. Jessica, who, along with other adults, have been part of this fellowship of love and prayer throughout the weekend. I remember how important the Happening experience was for my son John and for me, more than a decade ago. Those Happeners will be definitely be different people when they come home.

The other group of people I've been praying for are also Episcopalians. The annual convention of Recovery Ministries was held this week in Memphis, Tennessee. Since 1979, the mission of Recovery Ministries has been to those, who through addiction, have lost their health and freedom. This ministry seeks to help the addicted and those who love them connect with spiritual resources and find lasting recovery. Recovery Ministries also welcomes un-churched members of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-Step programs into the Episcopal Church; raises awareness of clergy and congregational leaders about the disease of addiction and the grace found in recovery; and strengthens recovering Episcopalians in their own daily work of recovery, so they can help proclaim the Good News of God's love, mercy and forgiveness, in the church and the world.

Seventy-five years ago, two men, Dr. Bob and Bill W., along with the help of several clergy, including an Episcopal priest, founded Alcoholics Anonymous. As of 2007, the most recent year of official statistics, AA had more than 114,000 groups or meetings in 150 countries, totaling at least 2 million recovering members. The priest who helped write the 12 Steps of AA, Sam Shoemaker, later wrote a pamphlet entitled "What the Church Can Learn from Alcoholics Anonymous." Did you know that his nephew, Samuel Shoemaker Johnston, was rector of this parish? In AA people share their experience, strength and hope through stories of what it was like before they stopped drinking and what life is like now, in recovery. Here's part of the best known AA story, that of co-founder Bill Wilson, more commonly known as Bill W.

Near the end of that bleak November, I sat drinking in my kitchen. With a certain satisfaction I reflected there was enough gin concealed about the house to carry me through that night and the next day. My wife was at work. I wondered whether I dared hide a full bottle of gin near the head of our bed. I'd need it before daylight.
My musing was interrupted by the telephone. The cheery voice of an old school friend asked if he might come over. He was sober. It was years since I could remember (him) . . . in that condition. I was amazed. Rumor had it that he had been committed for alcoholic insanity. I wondered how he had escaped. Of course he would have dinner, and then I could drink openly with him. Unmindful of his welfare, I thought only of recapturing the spirit of other days. . . .
The door opened and he stood there, fresh-skinned and glowing. There was something about his eyes. He was inexplicably different. What happened? I pushed a drink across the table. He refused it. . . . I wondered what had got into the fellow. He wasn't himself. "Come, what's this all about?" I (asked). He looked straight at me. Simply, but smilingly, he said, "I've got religion."
(Alcoholics Anonymous, Fourth Edition, "Bill's Story," pp. 8-9)

In our Gospel story today, both the Pharisee and the tax collector "had religion." Both were religious Jews. Both went up to the temple to pray. But their prayer, their religious practice was different. The Pharisee was proud of himself. He prayed about all the good things he was doing for God, of which there were many. And he thanked God for NOT being like those "other people." But the tax collector was not proud of himself. He prayed about all the good things he had NOT done and the bad things he had done. He stood far off from everyone. He couldn't look up to heaven. He beat his breast, which covered his heart, as a sign of his emotion and remorse. And he uttered a prayer which has become one of the ancient prayers of the church around the world. The Greek words are Kyrie eleison, Lord, have mercy. "God, be merciful to me, a sinner."

There's a joke some folks in AA and elsewhere tell about the difference between religion and spirituality. Religion, they say, is for people who are afraid of going to hell. Spirituality, they say, is for people who have been there. The Pharisee, it seems, is afraid of hell. He needs to tell God why he should go to heaven. The tax collector, on the other hand, tells God what hell has been like for him. His hell includes his addiction to a corrupt system that makes him wealthy by squeezing every penny he can from the poor. It's the perfect pyramid, the original Ponzi scheme. Dishonesty to the max. We don't know and can only ask, What gave the tax collector true religion? What changed his life? What spoke to his spirit and woke him up to God's Spirit?

Bill W. wasn't a tax collector, but he was a stockbroker. His addiction wasn't just about the booze. It went deeper. The hell of his addiction included his addictive love of money. He was part of the Wall Street schemes of his time, schemes that led to the Great Depression. He knew people whose internal pain and suffering was so great, they took their own lives. Down through history, people like you and me have needed true religion. Like them, we, too, need to pray real prayers. Like them, we, too, need God.

Yes, today, in a world addicted to every imaginable thing, we have come to this temple, like the Pharisee and tax collector, standing and sitting in the need of prayer. We need God. Our addictions, one modern spiritual writer said, "can lead us, if we are willing, to a deep appreciation of (God's love, mercy and) grace. They can bring us to our knees" (Gerald May, Addiction and Grace, p. 4). Our sins, sickness, failures and addictions, which often make it hard to look up to heaven, can bring us down to earth, to humus, to humility, to humanity.

Nineteen years ago, I was brought to my knees as a new rector. Through a series of circumstances, I found myself needing God more than I had ever needed God before. My first sponsor, a member of the parish named John, noticed that, at every Eucharist, I was filling the chalice too full for one person, even a priest, to consume at the end of Communion. One day he asked me, "Do you have a drinking problem?" And he took me to my first AA meeting. Today, I stand before you, a grateful recovering alcoholic, and say that I will always need to get down on my knees and thank God, not because I am NOT like someone else, but because I am JUST LIKE everyone else. Today and every day - one day at a time - I need to pray the church's ancient prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

Like the Pharisee, I tithe. And like the Pharisee, I can easily forget that God's abundant mercy, love and grace allows me, makes it possible for me to tithe. Like the tax collector, I need to remember, when I leave this holy place and go home, that it will be easy for me to be tempted to think I don't need to get down on my knees again today. Today, it will be easy for me and for you, it will be easy for those of us pious people who came to church today and put our offerings in the alms basin - it will be easy for us, on our way home from church, to think, "God, I thank you that I am not like those OTHER people, those Pharisees AND those tax collectors!"

I leave you with one more story of a recovering alcoholic. This man, whose father is an Episcopal priest, said to him one day, "Dad, I pray as if my life depended on it." The priest, whose son gave his father permission to tell this story to others, felt justified. He thought, I have done such a good job raising my son! Although he was sad to see his son struggle so much with his addiction, he rejoiced in his son's years of recovery. And the priestly father loved the fact that he had helped teach his son how to pray, years and years ago.

"Yes, son," the priestly father said, with a hint of a Pharisee's pride. "You pray as if your life depended on it," he repeated in his best professional listening persona. "No, Dad, you don't understand," he son insisted. "Dad, I pray as if my life depended on it. BECAUSE IT DOES."

How about it, sisters and brothers? Do you believe that prayer changes things . . . even people - people like you and me? Has this parable of Jesus, this story Jesus tells his disciples, a story Jesus knows applies to some of them, a story about those who trust in themselves rather than in God, a story about those who regard "those other people" with contempt - has this story touched you today? Do you come here today, standing in the need of prayer? Are you ready to bend the knee, not just of your leg but of your heart? Will you pray as if your life depended on it . . . because it does?