“Work, Pray, Play”

March 4, 2012


Isaiah 52: 7-10

Matthew 13:31-35, 44-46

During Lent, my sermons are exploring the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples. This is a way of prayer that we are still learning.

This morning, let us consider again what it might mean for us to pray: “Thy kingdom come.”

Of course, we in the United States have never been real comfortable with the idea of a king or a kingdom—nor have we been comfortable with that reality either. We need not let that word king trip us up. There is certainly no reason to picture the living God as some large male monarch in the sky.

Unlike the prophets, Jesus himself rarely spoke of God as a king.

But he did talk about the kingdom of God. He spoke of the kingdom as a sphere of authority into which we can enter. So maybe the realm of God is a better translation.

In this realm we discover:

            Forgiveness—the final victory over the sin that estranges us from God.

            Love—the reconciliation of the world to God.

            Peace—the wholeness of God surrounding all things—enabling us to forgive and to love others.

In many respects, the realm of God is vastly different from the world we know—a world in which blame, hatred, and violence seem to have free reign. So we pray “Thy kingdom come. . .” with a sense that we know something of that realm, that it is among us—but not completely.

The Swiss theologian Karl Barth illustrated this in a simple way—we might even say through a parable—by rapping on a table covered with a cloth. We can hear the sound that the table makes. We know it is there. But we don't see it. Our prayer is for the removal of the covering so that what is already real might be made visible. Our personal life and our family life, the life of the churches, political events of the day—Barth said that all of these are the covering. Underneath is that “great movement of God in favor of the human race which began with Christmas, with Easter, and with Pentecost.”[i]

What a wonderful image. And what a beautiful way of expressing the realm of God: “the great movement of God in favor the human race.”

When we pray “Thy kingdom come,” we pray that what God has begun through the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus and the pouring out of God’s Spirit will be brought to completion. It is a prayer for the future that is present with us now.

The time-honored advice for those who would pray states: “Pray as if everything depended upon God—and work as though everything depended upon you.” Or as I recently learned: “Pray like a Presbyterian and work like a Methodist!” Maybe we Congregationalists have the unique make-up that allows us to both pray and work effectively.

This will be our plan if we are bold enough—as we pretend to be each week—bold enough to pray along with Jesus “Thy kingdom come.”

On Ash Wednesday, I suggested that our Lenten activity can be seen as a “spring cleaning of the heart”—clearing away the clutter that has accumulated over the past winter, the past year, maybe over a lifetime.

As we pray with Jesus, we would do well to clear from our cluttered hearts the notion that everything depends on us.

Jesus told two parables about the realm of God. They weren’t long stories, just simple pictures of common occurrences. A small mustard seed is planted and grows into a tree with enough room that the birds come to roost in it. A woman mixes yeast with flour and the bread begins to rise.

I’ve never planted a mustard seed, but I’ve baked enough bread to be familiar with the mysterious process by which a little bit of yeast makes a lump of flour and water double in size. It has something to do with the chemical reaction between the yeast and the sugars in the flour. Gases are produced. Slowly the dough expands.

The point is the baker has little to do with this. Dough does not rise because we stand and watch. Dough does not rise because we pump air into it. Dough rises because of the silent, secret working of the leaven.

The coming of the realm of God is infinitely beyond our abilities—even under the most favorable conditions all that we are and all that we can do are threatened by destruction. We need the forgiveness, love, and peace that God can bring. In our neediness how can we bring these things into the world ourselves?

In one sense, we can’t do anything to bring about the realm of God anymore than we could bring about creation.

Our best efforts are compromised by sin. We can delay the realm of God; we can hinder the realm of God. But ultimately, that realm will come. Only God can and will bring that transformation.[ii]

And so we are wise to pray as though everything depends upon God.

We are also wise to work as though everything depends upon us. We need to clear away the clutter that says we are nobody, that we can do nothing significant.

After all, as one person put it, “God does not customarily rain clothes, food, medical care, and jobs from heaven.”[iii] Too many Christians seem to have forgotten that “we really are responsible to see that our society is just,” that the poor are not forgotten, that our air, water, and land are cared for.

This is our calling as those who pray: “Thy Kingdom come.” For this is not a prayer that “something will happen to the world of which we will be spectators,”[iv] this is a prayer that we will be changed and that we will be agents of transformation in the world.

The coming of God's realm lays claim upon our deeds and our thoughts.

So the two other parables that we heard this morning speak to us about our actions:

Finding a treasure in a field, a man sells all that he has in order to buy that field. Finding a pearl of great value, a merchant sells everything in order to buy it.

We receive the realm of God with open-hearted trust and thankfulness. Our actions are not a way of earning God’s love. Rather, when we act we are taking God’s grace seriously.

Our best efforts may be flawed, but they should still be our best efforts: clear thinking, acts of deep compassion, skilled work, the creation of beauty and art that moves us, love that shines, the best ethical response that we are capable of making by the grace God freely offers.

At our best, this is what the Congregational tradition and the United Church of Christ have always been about: a free response to the love of God experienced in Jesus Christ that immerses us into a hurting world. We seek to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to teach, strengthen, and equip people for living as signs that God’s realm has come into this world and will come into this world. Look at the great causes in our nation’s history: the Revolution, the abolition of slavery, the civil rights, women’s rights and reproductive choice, and peace movements, the work for marriage equality—Congregationalists and members of the United Church of Christ are found in all of them. Ours is an active faith. We do not shy away from involvement in the world that God created and into which God’s realm will come.

We make mistakes all the time. Still we continue trying to love the world as God has loved us.

Can we trust God? Yes. The work begun in Jesus will be brought to completion.

Can we trust ourselves? Yes. God is working in and through us.

Work and pray. Work as though everything depended on you. Pray as though everything depended on God.

It is a paradox.

Perhaps the paradox is resolved in neither our work nor our prayer but in our play.

Our work and prayer are important. But, maybe we should start to spend more time playing. Play as if we were partners with God in a new creation. Perhaps we should take our advice for Lent from the prophet Isaiah. Instead of sackcloth and ashes, instead of dull and dreary tunes, we might put on beautiful clothes and shout for joy.

Sing at the top of your lungs, even if it's out of tune.

Dance as if no one is watching.

Give until you start laughing.

After all, as one person put it, the realm of God “is where God’s will is done, and God’s will for you is for your well-being and for the well-being of all that God has created. This is the Kingdom we pray for. If you can live in this awareness, then as far as is possible in this world, you can live now in the Kingdom.”[v]

Play is a small thing. So, too, really, are our work and our prayer.

Out of such small things as these, however, the realm of God grows and flourishes.

Work, pray, play.

And all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

[i] Barth, Karl, Prayer, 2nd ed., pg. 59.

[ii] see Barclay, The Lord’s Prayer, pg.64.

[iii] Bondi, Roberta, A Place to Pray, pg. 55.

[iv] Barclay, pg. 65

[v] Bondi, Roberta A place to Pray, pg. 61.