Thursday, May 30, 2013

June 2, Proper 4: A Geography of Prayer, Number 1: The Planet

I Kings 8:22-23, 41-43, Psalm 96:1-9, Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10

Dearly beloved, we have entered that period in the church’s calendar that we call Ordinary Time. Ordinary time is most of the year. It is all those Sundays outside the seasons of Easter and Christmas. In those two seasons we celebrate the events in the life of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world. In Ordinary Time we look at our own ordinary lives, in the ordinary world, but as this world is the Kingdom of God.

In Ordinary Time, by ecumenical agreement, each Sunday gets its proper prayers and lessons. Today is Sunday Proper 4. Why we are not starting with Proper 1 has to do with the changing date of Easter, as I could show you in some charts and tables, but not in a sermon.

My next seven sermons are going to be a series on prayer. My method is to look at the proper lessons every week with this question in mind: what can these lessons can tell us about prayer. And if we believe that scripture is God’s Word, that means we’re asking God to tell us about prayer. So my sermons are going to be reports. I will report to you what I have heard the scriptures say, and what God is telling us.

Well then, scripture lessons for Proper 4, what can you tell us about prayer? We start with our first lesson, from First Kings. First, the obvious: people pray. We talk to God, and we use words when we do it. We assume that God listens to what we say and can understand us in any language. We assume that God has a mind of some exalted sort, and that God has a will, so that God can choose to act or not on what we tell God.

Second, people can pray together, with one person leading. King Solomon prayed out loud, and the assembly of Israel listened to him, and by their listening they were praying too. Some of us believe that the prayers of a designated person have more value than a common person’s prayers, but Protestants aren’t supposed to believe that.

Third, we pray in certain places which are designed for prayer. Some of us believe that the designated place adds value to the prayer. Christians aren’t supposed to believe that, unless its value is for ourselves; designated places can encourage and inspire us to pray, and it’s more than convenient for the congregation to have a designated place for our common prayers. So then, although all of us pray elsewhere as individuals and as families, we assemble here to pray, we let ourselves be led in prayer and we pray with our leaders by listening, and we assume that God listens and understands and at least considers doing what we ask.

Fourth, foreigners pray. Prayer is global. Almost all religions pray. I would say that prayer is the most religious thing that people do. Our religions incorporate such ordinary activities as singing and eating and teaching and serving and committing and making communities, but it’s only in religion that we pray. Prayer how we cross the boundary between our ordinary lives and whatever is transcendent. Human beings are the animals who pray. We are the animals with such strong imaginations, and we can imagine transcendence, and we try to enter into that transcendence which we’ve imagined, crossing into it by our thoughts and by our speech, and we imagine that someone transcendent is listening, even if that someone is not talking back, at least not directly, not in any way you’d call a conversation. God does not pray back to us! Prayer is a strange form of communication, being so one-sided. How do I know that anyone is listening, or that anyone is even there? But billions of people all around the planet keep on doing it.

Fifth, we can invite the people of the world to pray with us and we can pray with them, without regard for their belonging to the church or not. God listens to them too. That’s the assumption of the first lesson and the implication of the gospel lesson. Jesus heard the request of the pagan centurion. Our church is loyal to the Lordship of Jesus, and in his name we pray to God, and we witness to the way of Jesus and the truth of Jesus and the life of Jesus, but God is not constricted to our loyalty and God is greater than our witnessing. God is faithful to the church but not confined to the church. God’s goal is not the salvation of the church but of the world.

Sixth, when we pray in church we can pray for our own needs but we must also pray for all the world and for all sorts and conditions of human kind. That’s also in both the first lesson and the gospel lesson. This is what it means for us to be called a kingdom of priests, as we repeat it in the Ascription of Glory every week. A priest is someone who prays on behalf of other people. So if all believers are priests, one of our missions is not only to pray for other people but to help them pray. People don’t know how to pray. People are afraid to pray. People have given up on prayer. We help them pray.

Whether the people are saved or not or Christian or not is up to God, that’s not up to us, our mission is to help everybody pray, and I have discovered in my fellowship with Muslims and Jews and people of other faiths, that if I am truly open and humble and respectful, I can always pray my prayer in Jesus’ name and most of them are fine with that.

Seventh, from the gospel lesson: The Lord Jesus has authority, as prophet, priest, and king. He has authority to be a prophet, a healing prophet, like Elisha in the Old Testament, who healed the pagan officer Naaman, which story is the background to what Jesus does. Jesus has authority to be a king, which the centurion recognizes by calling him Lord and by saying that he’s unworthy to have Jesus come into his house. And as Solomon was a king who acted as a priest, so Jesus has authority to be our priest. He has authority to intercede with God on our behalf. More than that, he is himself the living temple to whom the people go to offer their prayer. And so we believe that the Lord Jesus has authority to hear our prayers to God and act on them. That’s why we pray to God in the name of Jesus Christ, because of the authority he bears for our sake.

Eighth, in this story we see two kinds of prayers. Petition and intercession. A petition is the request you make for yourself or for someone very close to you. That’s what the centurion did. And what the elders did was intercession, a request you make for someone other than yourself. Of course these overlap, and we should balance them.

Anne Lamott has written that the most basic prayer is “Help me!” That we can pray for our ordinary needs was confirmed by Our Lord in the prayer that he taught us, for what could be more basic help than praying for our daily bread? But we also pray, “Thy will be done, thy kingdom come.” Which means that in all our petitions and our intercessions we trust in God’s authority to answer our needs according to God’s own will and as our requests conform to the coming of the Kingdom. We will not see the final answer to our prayers until God’s kingdom has fully come on earth as it is in heaven. That is the gap we have to live with when it comes to prayer, the gap between our own knowledge and God’s providence.

Ninth, did you notice in the story that Jesus and the centurion never meet up with each other or even see each other, and also that the slave is healed by Jesus at a distance and in silence. Is not this the normal experience of prayer: the distance, the silence, this unseeing, the lack of physical contact and physical certainty? The distance of God, the silence of God, and if we have any real sensation or feeling of God’s presence we cannot prove it, it can be explained away by anyone who does not believe it, and if we point to a seeming answer to our prayer from God, that too can be explained away. We cannot disprove the disproof, we cannot escape the gap, which is why it takes such faith. It does take faith to pray. I think it takes more faith than doing good deeds for the poor.

In this sermon series, I expect to be coming back to this problem of the gap, and the distance, and the silence. I hope to have more to report to you. But today I leave you with this: The silence of God is not the anger of God. When we are angry we do the “silent treatment,” but God doesn’t. The anger of God is always spoken and always very clear. The silence of God is like your silence when you sit down with a hurting friend and you are wise enough to  keep your mouth shut and let them do the talking. The silence is God suffering us and also suffering with us, God waiting on us, God giving us great space to live our lives, with good and bad, with joy and sorrow.

And this you will have to accept as my testimony, I cannot prove it. I have learned, through my own prayers, which I’ve been practicing every morning now for twenty years, that while you’re praying, you will begin to experience the silence of God as the love of God. Honest. I certainly am not the only one to have discovered it. That’s why I pray every day, because it’s in my prayers that I experience the love of God. I recommend the same to you.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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