Sunday, July 27, 2014

What good is prayer?

A Sermon preached on July 27 (Pentecost VII) at St. Augustine’s Church,

1 Kings 3:5-12, Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52, Psalm 119:129-136

So there are three men who have been stranded on a desert island for a long time, and one day they find a bottle on the beach. When they uncork the bottle, as you always do in these stories, a genie appears and offers to fulfill three wishes. The first man wishes to be taken to Paris. The genie snaps his fingers, and the man suddenly finds himself standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. The second man wishes that he were in Hollywood, and with a snap of the genie's fingers, he finds himself on a movie set surrounded by stars. The third man, who is now alone on the island, looks around and says, "I wish my friends were back."

I suppose that if the third man has asked for an understanding mind as Solomon did, then that would not have happened. And it was the story of Solomon’s dream that made me think of three wishes stories and jokes, because it does sound quite like them. God appears to Solomon and says “Ask what I should give you.” (1 Kings 3:5) And Solomon, after all the flattery and humility that was customary in those days when dealing with great sovereigns and gods, only has one wish, he asks for the wisdom to be a good ruler: “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.” (3:9)

This was actually quite a daring request on Solomon’s part when we remember that in the Genesis story, God tells Adam that “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (Genesis 2:16-17) So there was quite a risk involved in asking for the ability to discern between good and evil that had been Adam and Eve’s downfall! But God is pleased – I think because Solomon is after all God’s appointee, the anointed King and supposed to look after the people of Israel on God’s behalf. He therefore needs some of God’s sense of justice and righteousness and his request was not for personal gain or need, but as the servant and steward Israel’s kings were supposed to be.

It’s also interesting that in the following two verses that we did not hear this morning the two wishes Solomon did not ask or pray for, long life and riches, get fulfilled anyway, though there are conditions attached. God says: “I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; …. If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.’” (1 Kings 3:13-14) Unfortunately, these turned out to be conditions that were too much for Solomon leading, so the author of the Book of Kings tells us later, not to Solomon’s personal downfall, but to the weakening and eventual fall of his royal house.

So is this a model for our prayers? Are they supposed to be a long wish list for God to fulfill? No, even if our corporate and private prayer, can sometimes sound like that. While Solomon’s prayers were answered completely, both logic and experience tell us that this is not and cannot always be the case for us. If two or more people pray for the same thing, say for a particular job, or as we recently saw at the football world cup for victory for their team, at the most God can only answer one prayer. I’m also certain that like me you’ve all prayed for something that has not come about. And I don’t think it's because we made a mistake in how we prayed or did not walk in God’s ways.

Anyway, in his letter to the Romans, Paul has a completely different vision of what prayer is. As “we do not know how to pray as we ought,” (Romans 8:26) he says, the Spirit prays on our behalf, wordlessly, and in groans or sighs too deep for words.  Our translation misses the beauty and poetry of the original Greek. God is called the Searcher of the Heart, I really like that name for God, and one thing God searches for, finds, and understands is the Spirit’s prayer beyond prayer.  This is often called the Prayer of the Heart, rather than the mind I suppose, and describes a wonderful vision of our Creator being continually in communion with the spirit that dwells in our hearts.

So why should we bother to pray at all then? The wish list type of prayer seems not to make sense and if Paul is right, God knows what we want anyway without us asking!

Well, prayer must be important if all of God is involved in it: the Spirit within us saying what we cannot say, Christ Jesus at God’s right hand interceding for us, and God the Creator working for good with those who love God.

And if we did not pray we would be missing out on the conversation that prayer is also supposed to be. That’s one reason why any prayer needs to include some time of silence, some time for us to listen for what God is saying, often in a very still, small voice. That’s why the more or less wordless forms of contemplative prayer, when we focus on a text, on a picture, on a statue or icon, or just on our breathing, can often be better suited to this conversation than spoken or structured prayers. As the poet Madeline L’Engle writes: “I, who live by words, am wordless when I turn me to the Word to pray.”[1]

Prayer is also about transformation. Being gradually conformed to the image of God’s Son is what God has in store for us and prayer, especially the deep prayer of the heart in which we share in Christ’s suffering and sorrow for the state of the world, is one way in which that happens. But prayers with words do this too. During our mutual, collective prayer in this service, the prayers of the people, we will list people and places and communities we pray for. This is not a wish or shopping list but a sign of our care and concern, as well as a way of focusing all our thoughts, and hopes, and desires on a common aim. It can change the situation we are praying for. And it will changes those who are doing the praying.

As our savior taught us, we are bold to pray …. Is how I will introduce what we call the Lord’s Prayer right before Communion. So praying, and praying with words is also a command of our Lord, even if he also tells us not to “heap up empty phrases” (Matthew 6:7) and like Paul, Jesus reminds us that our “Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (6:8) In prayer we should always seek to know God’s will, thy will be done is one of the petitions in the Lord’s prayer. And one reason Solomon’s prayer was answered was because he was asking God for that gift, the ability to discern God’s will: what is right.

Praying for God’s will does not just mean that we have to know what God would like to happen in any particular circumstance. That would be tough. For one thing, thanks to the Spirit we do not have to be worried that we always know that will perfectly. The Spirit helps us in our weakness, Paul writes. For another it simply means that what we pray for, whether for ourselves or for others, has to be consistent with God’s will for us and the world as revealed in Jesus Christ. Anything that furthers the kingdom, anything that is an expression of our love of God and our love of and care for the neighbor, anything that respects God’s image in the other is according to God’s will – and this sort of prayer is again part of our transformation.

As a means of communication, communion, and transformation prayer is always effective, but not just: prayers are answered: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love God,” to use a more accurate translation of Romans 8:28. However, the fruit of our prayer can catch us by surprise. What God chooses to give us, and when, is up to God. When we ask for something, say for strength to cope with a difficult situation, may not be the moment when we really need it. It is always God’s choice to take our prayer and use it in whatever ways God in God’s love for us desires. When my Father was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease, or ALS as it is also called, of course I prayed for him to be cured and to survive. That prayer was not answered. The prayers that both he and our family would have the strength to cope with the illness, that he would not suffer unnecessarily, and that we would make the best possible use of the time we had left together were answered. As was a prayer none of us had articulated, that our family be strengthened and our relationships healed. Why can we be so sure that God will answer our prayers for our good? We heard the answer earlier in the reading from Romans: “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (8:32)


[1] From the poem “Word” by Madeline L’Engle found in Praying Our Days by Frank T. Griswold

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