Saturday, September 6, 2008

Tuesday in the First Week of Lent, 2008

My and our good friend, the Rev. Jeffrey D. Murph, Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Oakmont, was scheduled to be in the pulpit at St. Andrew's on Tuesday evening, February 12, at the opening service of our 2008 East End Lenten Preaching Series. A day of snow and ice, with more predicted for the later hours, led to the cancellation of the service. At my request Fr. Murph has generously given me a copy of his sermon, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to share it here. A great gift. --BruceR

Sermon for Tuesday Lenten Eucharist, February 12, 2008, St. Andrew’s, Highland Park

Isaiah 55:6-11, Psalm 34:15-22, Matthew 6:7-15

Years ago, when I was a young assistant, one of my duties, among many, was working with our parish’s Older Adult Ministry. There was a part-time lay minister who worked with me and, over the course of a few years, I probably knew the older members in that very large parish better than most. Some of these older members, even though they were in their nineties, were very clear of mind and active in body. One in particular, about whom I want to tell you tonight, was from New Orleans. She was 95 and very proper in her language and manners, always perfectly turned out and gracious in every possible way. I always enjoyed her company.

She was blessed with a large extended family, who were all members of our parish and so, when the terrible day came, as sometimes happens when she fell suddenly ill, it turned out that her strength was very thin and she ended up in the hospital. When I arrived, she was surrounded by several generations of family, but she was oblivious to them all. She was continually moaning in a strange rhythmical way.

I asked, “Has she been doing this long?”

And they answered, “All day long. We can’t a word out of her and she won’t respond to anything or anybody.”

I said, “Well, let me just pray for her.” And after telling her I was there, speaking rather loudly through her wailing, and calling her to prayer, it occurred to me that I should pray one she would recognize.

So, very loudly, I started, “Our Father,” and immediately, as if a switch had been thrown somewhere in her mind, she stopped her wailing and joined with me through the whole prayer. At the end, she resumed her wailing immediately.

Her family, when I looked up from the prayer, stood with their mouths all hanging open. They couldn’t believe that somehow, the Lord’s Prayer had pierced through the layers of her dementia and illness and confusion.

The next day, she died peacefully. The family told me that those words of the Lord’s Prayer were the very last ones she had uttered. And they were thankful for that. In fact, they said, “It was a small but precious miracle.”

Most Christians, from across the whole world, no matter what their language, country or background, I would venture to say, know this prayer (sure, I know the Presbyterians persist in saying “debts” and the Roman Catholics don’t add the doxology ending—but it’s really the same prayer, of course). There’s a certain irony in this because I do not think that Jesus necessarily intended for the prayer he taught his disciples to be used literally verbatim, but rather as a model or framework for how to pray. Whatever he may have intended, that cat, of course, is now long out of the bag, as the Lord’s Prayer is now one of the two prayers most Christians know (the other being, “Now, I lay me down to sleep…”) Yet, for all its importance, Jesus says something at the beginning, before teaching this prayer to his disciples, which is quite remarkable. He says, “for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

God knows what we need even before we begin to open our mouths to pray. In the letter to the Romans, St. Paul says something very similar; he assures us that “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” God knows so well what we need that his Spirit sometimes can pray through us even when we cannot give articulation ourselves. God knows our hearts and minds so well, he can even pray through us for what we truly need. But this begs the question, “Well, then, if God knows already what we need then why do we need to pray?”

Actually, coming from a Jewish and Christian perspective, our approach to prayer is very different from that of many other religions. For example, the Gentiles of Jesus’ day did make long, complicated, formulaic prayers, almost magical in their attempt to placate or win favor from some pagan god or goddess. Prayers of that sort are marked both by uncertainty (will this incantation work?) as well as manipulation.

Today, prayer for many folks ranges from the notion of shouting off a cliff in the dim hopes that there may be someone out there listening to the other end of the spectrum where prayer becomes so intimate that it moves beyond words into a delighted sense of standing in God’s very Presence. Most people are probably somewhere in-between.

What does the Lord’s Prayer (the one Jesus actually taught us) say about communication with God? Because many people do not know how to pray.

First, despite the fact that we sometimes unthinkingly say it as if it were a formula, it is not a set of magic words. It actually has meaning. That may seem a small thing but Jesus is teaching us that the God of all creation wants us to engage him with our language and with our minds. Our God is not one of disorder and irrationality.

Secondly, Jesus sets his prayer in the context that God is our Father, a somewhat radical thing to do even in first century Judaism. This establishes a close and loving relationship with God even before we say anything else—this is very different from many of the religions of the world.

Thirdly, the whole first half of the prayer is about God, about his rule on earth becoming more like heaven, about his character and being. I don’t know about you, but one temptation in prayer for me is to focus exclusively on myself and my needs, as if God was some combination “dial-a-shrink and sugar-daddy”. So true prayer turns out to be about not only laying our needs and fears before a loving God but also reminding ourselves just who he is.

Fourth comes what even non-religious people include in any prayer: the “God HELP me!” part. Even non-believers may get mad and blame God when things go badly them or when they get desperate. But sharing concerns and anxieties is something we do with those whom we love the most. It’s completely natural and appropriate to ask honesty for what we need from a God who loves and cares for us.

Fifthly, in Jesus’ framework, is the prayer for forgiveness. Screw-ups for Christians are never eternal and irredeemable. Yet Jesus warns us that there is a condition: if our own hearts are clamped shut with unforgiveness then we cannot be open to receive the forgiveness God has for us.

And finally, there is reality of darkness, of evil. Christian MUST take the reality of evil seriously because, otherwise, the cross makes no sense at all. Jesus himself walked straight into that darkness in order to break its power. You and I, as his followers cannot expect to avoid it completely, but we can sure pray to be spared the worst of the wrath of its death throes.

But I want to return to the question of what prayer does. “If God does know already what we need then why do we need to pray?” And what about that story I told, where the Lord’s Prayer pierced through confusion and dementia when nothing else could. William Temple commented that perhaps it was coincidence that things happened for which he prayed but that when he stopped he noticed the coincidences lessened as well. As Jesus’ teaching on prayer in this passage from Matthew demonstrates, God clearly desires for us to be in communication with him through prayer.

I know that, at least in my own experience, not only do I believe that prayer changes things but I know it definitely changes me. Let share just one example of this. When I was in seminary, there was another student whom I found to be completely insufferable, which had never happened to me before. Nearly every time I had any encounter with him whatsoever, it would end with my blood pressure highly elevated. To my complete horror, I discovered that I had been appointed by the dean to serve on a committee that he was leading. I came back from the first meeting to my room and started throwing things. At that point, I realized that this was a very spiritually unhealthy thing for me. I also realized that Jesus’ command was to pray for him. So, I began praying like this, “Lord, please help this guy to stop being such an arrogant jerk.” And I prayed that prayer, pretty much verbatim, for quite a long time, several months.

Quite unexpectedly, I noticed that my prayer had begun to change after time. I found myself praying, “Lord, please help me deal with this arrogant jerk.” It wasn’t much better, perhaps, but the focus was on me rather than him. Finally, after about a year, I discovered that, without me consciously realizing it, God had changed my prayer once again, to, “Lord, please bring healing into this acquaintance.” And the miracle was, he did. We ended up working on another project my senior year very effectively and I never did figure whether it was because he had stopped being such a jerk or whether God had given me a special grace to overlook it or whether perhaps God had healed us both. After all, I had prayed for all three things.

Prayer, since it is communication with the living God who created all things, has more power than we tend to ascribe to it. Over the years of my ministry, I have witnessed actual miracles that were the outcome of prayer. Some of them big and some of them very small. And I have come to understand what Isaiah meant in this second song of his we read tonight, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” There is a limit to our understanding of the working of the Lord, whose ways sometimes are very mysterious. But after all, we are the creatures; he is the creator. And, as Isaiah again reminds us, “My word…goes forth from my mouth; it will not return to me empty; But it will accomplish that which I have purposed, and prosper in that for which I sent it.”

I do sincerely believe, along with that family gathered in the hospital that day, that, just as St. Paul promised in his letter to the Romans, the Holy Spirit gave utterance to that faithful lady to speak one last time the prayer our savior taught us. And that the blessing and answer to that prayer was not just for her but for her whole family. For our precious Lord is one who “will have compassion, and…will richly pardon.” Prayer is a unique privilege and opportunity to communicate with the living God. If, this Lent, you are afraid that you don’t know how to pray (and don’t be ashamed because even the twelve disciples admitted as much), then the framework Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer is a wonderful model to use. As an illustrious former rector of Calvary Church challenged people, it can be a wonderful experiment to conduct. And, after 35 days (which is what we have left in Lent, not including Sundays), examine the results. “My word that goes forth from my mouth; it will not return to me empty; But it will accomplish that which I have purposed, and prosper in that for which I sent it.” Who knows but whether those words may be the most precious comfort that comes in our hour of deepest need. There is nothing better to “kindle our hearts and awaken hope.” Amen+

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