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First Presbyterian Church

Dr. Stuart R. Gordon

September 11, 2016

Better Than Life

Psalm 63; Matthew 6:5-6

            Did you see recently that story of the relationship between a Brazilian fisherman and a penguin?

            It’s the story of a South American Magellanic penguin who swims 5,000 miles each year to be reunited with the man who saved his life. Retired bricklayer and part-time fisherman Joao Pereira de Souza, 71, who lives in an island village just outside Rio de Janeiro, found the tiny penguin, covered in oil and close to death, lying on rocks on his local beach in 2011.

             Joao cleaned the oil off the penguin’s feathers and fed him a daily diet of fish to build his strength. He named him Dindim.

             After a week, he tried to release the penguin back into the sea. But the bird wouldn’t leave. The fisherman says, “He stayed with me for 11 months and then, just after he changed his coat with new feathers, he disappeared.”

             What does the relationship between a penguin and a fisherman have to do with prayer? Let’s turn to Jesus teaching his followers how to pray, using a negative example as a beginning.

            Do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.

             The first lesson on prayer is this: don’t fake it. That is what “hypocrite” means here: play-acting. Here it doesn’t mean “saying one thing and doing another.” It doesn’t mean an inconsistency. At its most basic, hypocritical prayer is fake prayer. The hypocrites to whom Jesus points are the people who pray in order to gain the approval of other people. When they pray, they appear to value the companionship of God, when in fact, they value the praise of other people. Whereas they could be enjoying communion with the Maker of heaven and earth, instead they settle for walking away while other people say, “You know, I opened my eyes to check, and he didn’t read one word off the page. Every word came straight from his heart.”

            Jesus says, “Don’t be like that.” But notice that Jesus doesn’t announce a harsh condemnation for the prayer fakers. He doesn’t announce judgment on them; all he says is, “they have their reward.” No punishment here; just a reward that is far less than what it might have been. They wanted lesser things, and they got them. They imagined that it was a great deal to say a few words to God in public, and in return to have the praise of other people. And they probably didn’t realize how much they left on the table. Jesus says, “Don’t be like that.” Don’t walk away, leaving so much on the table. If only you knew what rewards are there for you…

            For as long as there have been people who worship gods, the temptation has been to use gods as a means for people to get what they want. If people want their crops to grow, they make prayers to the agriculture gods. If people want to win a war, they make prayers to the war gods. And if people want a good parking space, they make their prayers to the Father of Jesus Christ. Actually, I won’t rule out the possibility that God hears our prayers for a shorter walk to the mall entrance, but I do want to stress Jesus’ first lesson on prayer: don’t fake it. What he means is, prayer is about what happens between the believer and the Father. God is not an app. God is not a tool to be used in order to get some lesser reward. If all you got from prayer were a better parking space, you would be leaving so much on the table.

            Martin Buber said a long time ago that this relationship between the believer and God is an “I-Thou” relationship. It is a living encounter between the Creator and the creature. It is spoken in the second person, not the third. When I pray to God, I say “You are my God.” When I pray, I speak and God actually listens. God speaks, and somehow, I hear. I get still and I get quiet and somehow, I feel God’s presence. I ask for daily bread. I ask for forgiveness. I ask for deliverance from evil. And yes, I receive these things; but more than these things, I receive God. If only we seek the greater rewards that are there for us…

            In his book Sacred Thirst, Craig Barnes uses the phrase “upper room” to mean a place of spiritual intimacy. He says an upper room “is a room of prayer, which exists in your own heart. It’s the kind of thing Jesus was referring to when he said, ‘Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.’ There needs to be an ‘upper room’ in every life, a place in your heart with a door to close, a place where you are not distracted” (115).

            Have you ever had such a room in your heart? Have you ever known such a time in your life? I’m not asking whether you use that room every day of your life. I’m asking whether you’ve had the pleasure ever to dwell there. Life being what it is, few people manage to enter that room every day. Give thanks if you have. If you haven’t, don’t give up. Instead, listen as we eavesdrop on the Psalmist in that upper room.

            O God, you are my God; I seek you.

            my soul thirsts for you;

                        my flesh faints for you,

            as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

             Does that level of intimacy in prayer surprise you? Does it make you a bit uncomfortable, even? Last week I was struggling to grasp this intimacy, what to compare it to. And I finally settled upon a love song. Where else do we hear such transparent expression of desire? “My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you.” Forgive me, but the song that came to my mind was from 1967, and the lips of Jackie Wilson. Your love keeps lifting me, higher and higher. “So keep it up; quench my desire, and I’ll be at your side, forevermore.”

            So I researched it, and learned that the first time that Jackie sang the song, says the producer, “He sang it like a soul ballad. I said, ‘that’s totally wrong. You have to jump and go with the percussion.’ If he didn’t want to sing it that way, I would put my voice on the record and sell millions.’” So Jackie Wilson listened, and cut the lead vocal in a single take. And if you can’t hear that song in your head, wait until after church, and listen to it. Listen to the background singers take you to church at double time and lift off for heaven on the wings of the wind.

            The first lesson on prayer is, “don’t fake it.” Don’t settle for too little. Go to your upper room, your quiet place of prayer, and encounter the living God in person. Maybe that sounds strange for a Calvinist to say, but it’s actually very Calvinistic. John Calvin’s first principle on prayer was that we pray in order that our hearts would be “fired with a zealous and burning desire ever to seek, love, and serve Him and to take refuge in Him in time of need.” Jackie Wilson would love it!

            No one is always there, in that upper room. No one can remain there. The truth is, we go back and forth, at best. We live between the desert – the dry and weary land where our souls thirst and our flesh faints – and the holy place. The Psalmist remembers the sanctuary, hearing the organ and gazing upon the chancel, and joining in the singing, beholding the power and glory of our God. And the vivid memory of that sustains him. And it whets his appetite, and sends him to the place of prayer within the desert. And miraculously, God is there.

            This, I think, is a key reason why it’s so important not to fake prayer, not to settle for too little. There’s nothing especially noteworthy about being praised by others for your beautiful prayers. In fact, though receiving daily bread is noteworthy, that too still leaves a good bit on the table. What is really noteworthy is that God is, in fact, your God. What is really noteworthy is that believers have discovered communion with God not just in the sanctuary, but in the driest, loneliest places of all: When depression was weighing us down and God lifted us up in prayer; when sickness was having its way and communion with God felt like a momentary cure; when all was lost, and God’s presence eased the sting, if but for a little while. It seems that almost anything in life is bearable if you’re not alone. And in your upper room, you are not alone.

            The Psalmist says, “Your steadfast love is better than life.” Better than life. How can that be?

            A.J. Jacobs is the author of that book, The Year of Living Biblically. He is the non-observant Jew who spends a year trying to obey, literally, every command in the Bible. It is an experiment, with some successes and some failures. And even though he is skeptical, he has moments of insight, glimpses of God. Near the end of the year, he has one such insight, and it’s at his niece’s bat mitzvah in New Jersey. He describes the whole affair as pretty kitschy, but something happens when he goes onto the dance floor, carrying his fidgety young son, Jasper, where, he says,

            [W]e join all the thirteen-year-old classmates and sixty-eight-year-old cousins twice removed. We are dancing to some Beyoncé song, and I feel something happen. I feel something envelop me and then envelop Jasper. And then I feel it keep going. I feel it spread out like a drop of cranberry juice in a glass of water, sweeping through the room, swallowing my nieces and nephew and Julie and my parents. Here I am, at this gloriously silly ritual, surrounded by giant Twizzlers and Milk Duds, my defenses down, and this feeling has seeped out of my brain through my skull and filled the room. And kept going. For all I know, it has swept out the doors and windows into the parking lot and through the driveway. … [A]t this suburban Jersey country club, my son’s hands locked around my neck, his head pressed against my shoulder, I chose to accept this feeling and ride it to the end. To surrender. If I had to label it, I’d say the feeling is part love, part gratefulness, part connectedness, part joy. And that joy was like joy concentrate, far more intense and warmer than what I felt in a night of dancing with the Hasidim. Maybe now I’ve finally felt what King David felt when he danced before the Lord.

             God’s steadfast love is better than life. God can sneak up on you on the dance floor at a silly bat mitzvah, or in the waiting room at the hospital, or in your quiet room where you close the door. And God may stay, as for Jacobs that night, “all of ten seconds. Maybe less.” But, as he says, though it fades, “not totally. There’s still some background radiation – which I hope to God stays for weeks, months” (326).

            Or, as the Psalmist says, “My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips.” My seminary professor describes it this way: “For a moment, trust becomes pure adoration.” In other words, God – my God. And nothing else matters.

            Joao the Brazilian fisherman seems to have more than a story about saving a penguin. You see, a few months after his Dindim grew new feathers and disappeared, the penguin came back. And Dindim found Joao on the beach and followed him home.  “For the past five years, Dindim has spent eight months of the year with the fisherman and is believed to spend the rest of the time breeding off the coast of Argentina and Chile. It’s thought that he swims up to 5,000 miles each year to be reunited with the man who saved his life.

            “Joao says, ‘I love the penguin like it’s my own child and I believe the penguin loves me. He allows no one else to touch him. He pecks them if they do. He lies on my lap, lets me give him showers, allows me to feed him sardines and to pick him up. …every year he becomes more affectionate as he appears even happier to see me.’

            “When Dindim sees Joao, he wags his tail like a dog and honks with delight.”

            Who would have thought that a penguin could commune with a man? And the beauty of it is that the penguin can’t be trying to impress anyone! Dindim returns to Joao because to him, Joao is life itself.

            Friends, as strange as it may seem, God is with you: here in the sanctuary, your God. Out in the deserts of weariness, your God; in your upper room, that place of prayer in your heart, your God. Seek him. Do not settle for less. Do not leave anything on the table. Settle for nothing less than the I-Thou intimacy of your upper room. Choose now to make a place of prayer, where you can commune with God, your God; for God’s steadfast love is better than life.


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