“El Gato y el Mono”
January 24, 2016
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
Primera Iglesia Bautista
Good morning. It’s so good to be among you after so many years. It’s such an honor to pray and worship with you once again. I think this is my 10th visit to Nicaragua. I visited five times in the 1980’s, before this great building was constructed. I was a lot younger and thinner back then. I even had a full head of hair that wasn’t grey. It took me until 2003 to return, thanks to our sister church relationship with Second Baptist Church of León. Now, I’m an old man. I guess it’s finally safe to ask me to preach. What harm can I do, right? I am humbled to preach from the same pulpit from which my good friend and hero Gustavo Parajón preached so many times.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you oh God our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
When Joan Parajón asked me to preach, she told me that your focus is on prayer this month. I have been praying ever since that my Spanish would be understandable. I offered for Marta to translate for me and change whatever I said to make it a better sermon. If the congregation didn’t like what she said, I told her you could blame that silly old gringo from Minnesota.
Prayer has many functions. It is how we commune with God, how we speak with God. It is how we empty ourselves of distraction and focus our best energies on God’s plan for us. It is how we gather strength for a task. It is how we give thanks, remembering that we did not accomplish our triumphs on our own. But it is also to remember that even in our defeat we are not alone.
The Apostle Paul opened all of his letters with prayers for the churches he helped found that he was far away from. Think about all of the people that you pray for that are far away. Aren’t we moved and supported by all of the people who pray for us? I know that we pray for you and we believe that we are mystically connected with each other through prayer.
Many people think that you need to pray with your eyes shut and in a certain place. That you can only pray at certain times of the worship service. But the reality is that we can pray any time and anywhere. It’s all about bringing God into your consciousness and remembering that you are not alone. I pray when I run, when I swim, even when I drive. Sometimes we want more praying drivers who are not distracted in their task.
At the University Baptist Church in Minnesota, we pass the microphone around during the worship service so people can lift up their prayers to God. Sometimes it takes 2 minutes, sometimes it takes 20 minutes. It’s a deep and tender time. I tell people that sometimes the best sermon happens during the prayer time. Sometimes it’s the music. St. Augustine said he who sings prays twice. We are truly blessed when each part of the service works so well together that we have prayed so many times.
Some of us only pray in a time of crisis. And we don’t really know how because we have not practiced it enough during the good times.
Imagine Paul, a prisoner for Christ in that Roman cell. Paul was lonely and scared. His prayer life sustained him. In today’s scripture he writes, “the righteous will live by faith.” I think what he meant was, “If I can keep my faith, I will live. If I believe that God’s purpose is being worked out in me, that I can hang on. If I lose this blessed assurance, then the evil of my captors takes over and I’m doomed.”
The truth is that God will hold us up and strengthen us even when everyone else is against us. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad for they did that to the prophets before you.” Paul knew what he was in for and he stood up for what he knew to be right. In like fashion, many of our Christian forerunners stood up against injustice, slavery, lack of voting rights and even military conscription, centuries ago by saying, “Here I stand, I can do no other. May my faith not be shaken by the powers of this world.”
Paul loved the church and the church, at least the parts that got their names in the Bible, loved Paul. But now, Paul was in prison and he was lonely and he needed the prayers and support of the church. He needed the assurance that he was not alone—that there were people who believed as he did and who were willing to support and carry on the message of Christ in his absence.
Paul in his longing wrote this letter to a church that he would not see again. He writes in verse 8, “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you.” Why does he say that? Is it because he likes them? Is it because he knows they have not forgotten him? Is it because he misses them? Is it because the church is his security blanket when the coldness of the world had beaten him down?
I’m sure it is all of that, but it is more than that too. Our faith in Christ Jesus enables us to do amazing things in the world. You and I are part of the church which Paul thanks. When we make a commitment to the church, we carry on the work that Paul describes. What an opportunity we have to give light to a world bend upon darkness. But the church is more than that. It is more than just an agency which helps out the needy and carries on the faith. Yes the church is even more than that. The church is also family.
Paul did not have a family outside of church, as best and we can tell from scripture. In his letter to the church in Corinth, he told them that the church was the living body of Christ. Each of his letters was written swimming with praise for his extended family and his desire to get back to be with them. Paul needed his church family and longed for a family reunion. He needed their support, their love and their unconditional acceptance.
At our best we stand, with our forbearers and with Paul we say, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ of Lord,”(Romans 8:38-39)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said there are two tasks of the church, two pillars of our faith. Prayer and doing justice. We can’t do justice without prayer because it will make us angry and cynical. We can’t pray and not be spurred to make our world a better place. So the prayer that we do helps to sharpen our approach to the needs of the world.
But prayer can also be a crutch. It can be a pious thing that absolves us of responsibility. Amos 5:21-24 rails against the prosperous people who made a big thing about their praying. “I hate, I despise your feasts, I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs (sorry choir) to the melody of your harps I will not listen (He says nothing about handbells) But let justice roll down like a mighty water and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” That’s the true result of prayer.
The prophet Isaiah criticizes the Hebrew people for doing all of the fasting that they were supposed to do but forgetting that such fasting ought to bring about change in people’s lives. He tells them to loose the bonds of wickedness and repair the breaches between people. That’s what prayer ought to bring about.
I love the Venezuelan protest song of thirty years ago that goes, “No, no basta rezar, hacen falta muchas cosas para conseguir la paz.”
In the U.S. there is a movement that says that Black Lives Matter. It is a protest movement decrying the maltreatment of black people by the police and the continued inequality that exists in our country. Many people in the movement are suspicious of clergy because they believe we think that we will pray and that will be enough. But if our prayers do not spur us into action, then maybe we’re praying to the wrong god. Maybe we’re praying to the god who sanctions racism and oppression. Maybe we’re praying to the god who comforts the comfortable and doesn’t care about the afflicted.
Our prayer ought to move us to action for justice.
In Leon, our sister church prayed about what they could do for the poor in their neighborhood. They received a vision that they should feed people at the Al Fortin city dump, where families live and get their meals from the garbage. The good work of CEPAD and AMOS are the result of visions that came about as a result of prayer.
In Minnesota, we prayed about what we could do for the hungry in our neighborhood. So, we dug up a portion of our lawn and planted a vegetable garden. We put a sign in the garden saying, “Help yourself.” One person came up to me and said, “I saw someone stealing from your garden.” I told her, they weren’t stealing if we’re giving it away. “But you worked hard on that, how could you just give it away?” I told her about grace. We have been given this life, this property and we’re stewards of it.
It’s the covenant we have with the people, with God. It is not our private property. It is for the community. We just maintain it. It’s what sanctuary is all about.
All of that came about because of prayer.
I am reminded of a trip I made several years ago to a monastery on the island of Iona in Scotland. The stone Abbey building was originally built in the 1200’s, replacing the relicts of wooden buildings of centuries before but it fell into disrepair and was abandoned in the 1600’s like so many castles and abbeys throughout the UK—a victim, some say, of the Reformation. About one hundred years ago, the Iona Community reconstituted itself as a place of prayer and action. They set to work on restoring the old Abbey. As they were repairing one of the large windows at the front of the abbey, they came across two chipped and weathered stone carvings. One was of a cat and one was of a monkey.
These were enigmatic figures and not the thing one would see in a monastery. The community ignored them for a while, chalking it up to yet another unexplained oddity of the old building. But then an Asian pilgrim told them that they actually represented two aspects of the Christian life.
The monkey represents activity and action while the cat represents solitude and reflection. Think about it. Have you ever seen a docile monkey? They are mischievous, creative, and unpredictable. There is a playfulness to a monkey and a boldness, too. Maybe even a certain carefreeness.
A cat on the other hand, has a dignity to it. It is more reserved. It will often sun itself and purr with delight when things are going its way and hiss with passion when they are being disturbed. A curled up cat has wisdom and patience and attentively watches the world, and seems to constantly be lost in thought. Both are needed for a healthy spiritual life. The monkey represents the hard work of living in community and tending to life in a formidable climate. The cat represents the solitariness of monastic life.
So here’s the question: is religion individual prayer and no action? Is Christianity action and activism without a centering in God and scripture and contemplation? The activity is my monkey self. The reflective time is the cat self. Of course, we know both are needed in a balanced life, but how often do we tend to the balance? How do you respond to these two impulses? Do each of these aspects alone bring you closer to God or to your higher purpose in life?
Think about this. We can be so caught up in activity, that we lose our sense of self. We lose our sense of others. It all becomes about me and not about us. Even our activism can be unbalanced. We need those moments, those opportunities for prayerful reflection.
On the other hand, we can become too self-absorbed, worried about our own connection with God and our own need for rest and solitude that we lose our connection to the wider world.
There’s a small activist church in Washington, D.C. called the Church of the Savior. This is a high commitment church. And it would be easy for each of the people to get burned out doing good work. There is so much need. But they learned early on that they needed to balance their monkey and their cat. They wrote into their church covenant that each member needed to attend to both an inward journey and an outward journey. To do only one is to be incomplete and not an effective minister of the Gospel of Jesus. Jesus after all balanced his activist turning over the tables of the moneychangers with his prayers in the wilderness and in the garden of Gethsemane.
All of us are part monkey and part cat. Sometimes one part is dominant. At other times the other takes center stage. The important thing is to take time to tend to both of them.
So, my friends, pray for our world. Pray for those in prison. Pray that we might find a way to be more understanding, more compassionate, more loving, more wise, less judgmental, more patient. Like Paul, remember the people that you love and who love you.
But like Isaiah, also find ways that you can loosen the bars of the prison walls. Find ways through prayer that you can question the status quo and be the better follower of the Gospel. Find ways that your prayers may cause you to be a peacemaker and a justice-seeker. For when we do, we will be called the children of God. Be a child of God who is a playful monkey and a regal cat at the same time. Such is the life of prayer.