Prayer and Service to the Poor

My mantra for ministry for about the last decade has been “prayer and service to the poor.” Prayer and service to the poor. These two pursuits have been the primary mission of my youth ministry in southern California and the mission of the Marin Episcopal Youth Group since it began in 2012. Sometimes when I talk about it with youth and their parents, I like to continue with the alliteration and add, “prayer, service to the poor and pizza parties.” And sometimes when we have meetings devoted mostly to fun and games and pizza parties, the youth are the ones who remind of our commitment to prayer by asking, “Hey, can we pray Compline?”

Since we first met five years ago, the youth group has concluded its meetings together around a sand bowl as we pray for each other and the world by lighting beeswax candles and placing them in the sand. We begin this time by first lighting one single candle and then opening our prayer books to the Compline prayer which is on a page number that I often forget, but the youth always seem to remember: page 127. It’s a very simple and beautiful prayer that is meant to be prayed before going to bed. With our prayer books open, we then take a couple deep breaths, sit together in silence, appreciating the gift of our shared time together; and as we pray and ritualize our prayers with candles, usually with a student officiating the service, we watch as our common fire grows. Even in the midst of the occasional giggling, I often feel like we are sitting together on holy ground around that bowl. It’s like our burning bush.

And from that fire, the youth group has felt called by God to serve food and give clothing to the hungry and homeless in San Rafael, to send bags of stuffed animals to orphans in Vietnam, to support a missionary family in South Sudan and Kenya, and to provide relief for hurricane victims. I see all of our outreach as the overflowing extension and natural outcome of our communal prayer together. I see prayer and service to the poor as inextricably linked; as two sides of the same coin.

The apostle James put it bluntly when he said, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:14). In a sense, he was also saying, “Prayer without service to the poor is ultimately lifeless.” But I would also say that service to the poor and the oppressed without any prayer might be even more dangerous and deadly. That is one of the messages from our readings this morning.

We are in the second part of our Exodus series. As I mentioned last Sunday, the Hebrew name for the book of Exodus is Shemoth, which means “Names.” And in our reading today, Moses stands on holy ground by a burning bush, where he learns the Name of God; and Names are very important in the book of Names.

But before Moses encounters God at the burning bush on Mount Horeb (which is also Mount Sinai), Moses tries to protect the poor and oppressed people of Egypt before he has made any prior commitment to prayer or to God. He learns the hard way that service to the poor and the oppressed without any prayer can be very dangerous and even deadly. Unfortunately, the lectionary omits this part of the Moses story, but fortunately, you all have Bibles in your pews so we get to read it. In Exodus chapter 2 verse 11, we read, “One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When Moses went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting; and he said to the one who was in the wrong, ‘Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?’ He answered, ‘Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?’ Then Moses was afraid and thought, ‘Surely the thing is known.’ When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and settled in the land of Midian.” So Moses tried to the protect the oppressed without being rooted in prayer, and as a result, all he seemed to earn was his name on the pharaoh’s hit list and on the blacklist of his own people, who now viewed him with suspicion. Without a prior commitment to prayer, our attempts to protect the oppressed can prove not only ineffective but also violent and destructive, ultimately making things even worse for them and for us. This approach did not work out well for Moses. So he retreats. He retreats to a place called Midian, which means “Place of Judgment” or “Place of Discernment.” And it is there that he learns to root himself in prayer and make himself at home in the presence of God.

On Mount Horeb, God tells Moses to remove his sandals because he stands on holy ground. In ancient Near Eastern culture as well as in our culture, many people remove their shoes when they enter someone’s home or their own home. In God’s command to Moses to remove his sandals, I hear God inviting Moses to make himself at home in God’s Presence. It is by making himself at home in God’s presence that Moses aligns himself with God’s deep concern for the poor and the oppressed, of God’s intention to deliver his people from a cruel system of violence and subjugation, and of God’s plan to make Moses a major part of this mission of liberation. And it is in God’s Presence that Moses learns the very Name of God, the Name that Jacob asked for after wrestling all night with God, but did not receive. The Name that God gives to Moses is not Yahweh, but rather Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh: “I am who I am” or “I will be what I will be;” or more simply Ehyeh (“I am”). In this enigmatic Name of God given to Moses, I once again hear a call to prayer and service to the poor.

Christians have interpreted this name to mean that God is not a being but is rather Being Itself or what one theologian Paul Tillich called “the Ground of Being.” According to the Christian tradition, we all participate in God through our participation in existence. The English author of the Christian mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing says, “God is your being, and what you are, you are in God. For the author of The Cloud of Unknowing and many other Christian mystics, prayer involves quieting our hearts and minds in order to reconnect with and rest in our Ground of Being, to make ourselves at home in God’s presence, like the youth group does when we pray Compline, like Moses did at the burning bush.

Jewish commentators have interpreted the Name of God in their own creative way. The medieval French rabbi Rashi connects God’s Name with God’s previous revelation that he has seen and heard and even felt the suffering of his people. It is a revelation of divine pathos and divine solidarity with those who suffer. In the Name Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, Rashi hears God saying, “I shall be with them in their anguish just as I shall be with them (and all people) in future crises of slavery and persecution!” In his Name, God reveals himself as always with and among those who are poor and suffering. If we want to serve God, then we do so by serving the poor, which is the natural outflow of prayer and contemplation.

Last Sunday, I participated with Bishop Marc Andrus in an Interfaith Prayer Rally Against Hate in Berkeley, wearing a sign that said, “Hate is not a Christian Virtue,” and marching alongside the Rev. Molly Haws. Before we marched, however, we made ourselves at home in God’s presence, we drenched ourselves in prayer, renewed our commitment to non-violence and reminded ourselves that faith without works is dead, but works without faith is deader.

Moses liberated an enslaved group of immigrants from the stubborn clutches of the world’s most powerful empire not by arming the Hebrews with weapons to incite a violent revolt but rather by praying and making himself at home in God’s presence and courageously speaking truth to power; and letting God do all the rest. This is exactly what Paul calls us to do when he says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…do not fight violence with more violence, but…leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ …Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

And this is exactly why Jesus condemns Peter so harshly because he knows that Peter’s mind is set on the violent overthrow of the Roman empire, a revolution that was to be ignited and spearheaded by the Messiah himself. Peter, who has just confessed Jesus to be that Messiah, cannot understand how Jesus’s suffering and death could possibly fit into this plan. Peter wants to liberate the oppressed the only way he knows how, through violence; and as we saw with Moses, that approach only seems to make things worse.

Jesus calls Peter and his disciples and us to let go of our feeble attempts to serve the poor and liberate the oppressed through our own power. He calls us to pray, to make our home in the presence of God, in the presence of Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, the Ground of our Being, the One who is always with those who suffer, and the One who says “Vengeance is mine” and who will, in Jesus’s words, repay everyone for what they have done.

We are all called to serve the poor and liberate the oppressed, but before that, we are called to pray. So I ask you, how do you make yourself at home in the presence of God? Where is your burning bush? How do you rest in the Ground of Being? And when you are on that holy ground, how do you hear God calling you specifically to serve and liberate and redeem his people?

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion (which is service to the poor[1]); nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

[1] See James 1:27

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