On Fifth Sundays at Open Table, we enjoy sharing stories and a meal as our worship experience. Rather than posting a sermon this week, I'm sharing thoughts based on Bible study discussion from last week--and a poem I read that same Sunday in worship.
Jesus and Wendell Berry on Public Prayer: "Get a Room!"
Our Sunday afternoon Bible study group continues to work our way through the Gospel of Matthew, even as the lectionary detours from that Gospel during Lent. Last week we turned to Matthew 6, especially Jesus’s injunction to “beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” (6:1) and his instruction that “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Parent who is in secret” (6:6).
You’ll recall that this part of the Sermon on the Mount (and the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday) emphasizes doing good works and carrying out religious practices for the right reasons. We’re to pray, give alms, and fast in order to express love of God and love of others, not for the sake of appearing pious. But emerging Christianity is revisiting and sometimes readjusting ancient spiritual practices--hoping to align our expanding understandings of God with vital forms of prayer. Open Table, for instance, increasingly depends upon periods of silence as our deepest means of communal prayer. We are using embodied or action prayers to link our intentions to our actions. We need to pray together as a community. But we admit that vulnerability with God and one another is not only difficult but sometimes downright unseemly.
Wendell Berry’s poem “An Embarrassment” stuns the reader with the unseemliness of a truly vulnerable public prayer. Read it here: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2014/03/16. Read it again.
Most public prayers drop to the ground with a “soft thump.” But if “a lonely soul” were ever to pray “its true outcry” in public, “it would be as though / at a sedate party / a man suddenly / removed his clothes /and took his wife/ passionately into his arms.” What a simile for public prayer!
Are Jesus and Wendell Berry telling us that genuine prayer can be experienced only in private? Was Jesus saying the equivalent of “Get a room!” in Matt. 6: 6?
Is public vulnerability to the point of “embarrassment” nevertheless a necessary act of devotion, a risk worth taking?
To what extent can a faith community “go into [our] room and shut the door and pray” together?
Can we modulate our prayer voices to utter sincere if not passionate prayers publicly?
Perhaps other prayerful and progressive faith communities are asking these questions.