Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Power of Prayer

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 18:9-14:

Rev. Zan Holmes once said that most churches are guilty of the sin of low expectations.  That we are happy to welcome people and to offer God’s grace, but we expect nothing in return.  We are guilty of the sin of low expectation he said.  So what are the expectations that we should have as members of any congregation, let alone this one?  I think they are found for us in the membership vows of the United Methodist Church, whether we are members or not, and that is that we pledge to support this congregation with our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. I believe that these membership vows not only should mean something, but they do mean something, and so we are going to spend the month of November looking at and talking about these vows, what they mean, why we have them and what the expectations are for us as a congregation, and we begin today with the first item in the list, prayer.

I think prayer is first in the list for a very good reason, because of its importance.  We begin and end in prayer.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said that “God does nothing without prayer and everything with it.”  Wesley would begin his day with one hour of prayer before he began to do anything else.  Prayer is foundational, it gives us the roots of our faith.  Prayer is one of the primary ways that we engage and interact with God, and by which we come into deeper relationship with God.  To be able to say that we are in relationship with God means that we must be in conversation with God through prayer.  But what we also have to remember is that a conversation requires both parties to be participating, that is one person talks and the other listens, and then the other person talks and the first person listens.  So prayer is just as much about listening to God as it is talking to God.

Luke in particular emphasizes prayer.  His gospel talks about prayer more than any of the other gospels, and so just following the example of Jesus we know that would should be praying, and yet many of us don’t, and the reason I hear most often from people is that they don’t know how to pray, they feel uncomfortable doing it, they’re not sure they are doing it right, it doesn’t seem to do anything, that is they don’t see any results, and so they stop, or they see or hear others praying and feel inadequate, that their prayers don’t sound anything like that, reinforcing the idea that they must be doing it wrong.  Unfortunately, the church has not done much to assist in this problem.  I suspect that few of us have ever received any training, besides for watching others, in how to pray.  Even in seminary there was not a class offered on prayer.

Richard Rohr, who is a Franciscan monk here in Albuquerque, has said: The church that doesn’t teach its people how to pray has virtually lost its reason for existence.”  But here is the good news for you, the disciples apparently didn’t know how to pray either, or at least they thought they didn’t, because the only thing that the disciples ever ask Jesus to teach them, at least as far as we know, is how to pray.  They don’t ask how to heal, they don’t ask how to interpret scripture, they don’t ask how to preach, they don’t say “teach us to be a disciple,” but they do say, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

I know that prayer can be difficult because I’ve struggled with it for a long time, but it was a moment of prayer that changed my life and led me to be standing here before you this morning, and I will tell you that story, but not today.  But it turns out that all of us really know something about prayer, whether we think we do or not.  We know about prayer because most of us have been surrounded by prayer our whole lives, we’ve seen examples of it set for us and demonstrated for us, and even taught to us by those we love.  None of us start with or have an empty slate when it comes to what we know about prayer.  But there may be an even deeper relation to prayer than that.

In language studies of infants, researchers have found that all babies make the same sounds. It doesn’t matter if the language their parents speak is Swahili or Mandarin or English, all babies make exactly the same sounds.  This has caused some theologians to propose that we come into the world knowing the language of God, and that is what these sounds represent, but that we lose it over time, and so the work is to recapture that connection, that language that is a part of our very nature, after all we are made in the image of God, to reclaim the language of prayer that God has put into our hearts, and to a large degree that means for some of us trying to put aside many of the rules that we have learned in order to free ourselves to connect with God in prayer.

Two men went up to the Temple to pray.  One was a righteous man, a Pharisee, and one was a sinner, a tax collector, and one goes away justified.  This story is another of those teachings about prayer that we get from Jesus, and from Luke.  The reason why we bow our head in prayer is because of this parable, because that is what the tax collector does and we are told that he was justified in his prayer, opposed to the Pharisee, who held his head up in prayer not only literally but also figuratively.  But to say that the tax collector was justified because he couldn’t even look up, and therefore that is the correct posture of prayer, is a fundamental misunderstanding of the story.  And the other trap we get caught up in in hearing or reading this passage is to say, “God thank you for not making me like this Pharisee.”  And so we end up in exactly the same place.

Prayer is not about the bodily posture that we take.  Prayer is not about the words that we say, although they can matter, because Jesus tells us not to lift up empty phrases thinking that only by using big words will our prayers really matter.  Prayer is not about where we pray, although that is important because Jesus warns us not to be like the hypocrites who like to stand on the street corners or in other public places so people can see them praying.  Prayer is not about reminding God how excellent the creation is, most especially the most important part, us, which is really what the Pharisee is doing.  And prayer is not about asking for things from God, as if God is, in the words of Bishop Will Willimon, a cosmic butler, who is there to grant whatever it is that we seek to ask.  That is what many people reduce prayer to, and then they find that it doesn’t work because those things aren’t granted.  When Jesus says that whatever we ask for in prayer will be given, that is not what he means, and that also cuts off the rest of the passage because what Jesus actually says is that those who ask and search and knock, that God will give them the Holy Spirit.  That is the gift that comes as a result of all prayers, that in fact every prayer is answered because in engaging in prayer we receive the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit give us what?  Power.

When we pray for something, anything, God gives us the Holy Spirit. Through prayer we are infused with the Holy Spirit and are brought into a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God. That is the power of prayer; it is the power to invite God into our lives, to say to God “I want to be in relationship with you,” it is to turn ourselves over to God and not only to talk but more importantly to listen. It is to engage in a conversation about our lives, our joys, our struggles, our triumphs and our tragedies, our strengths and our weaknesses, and it is to seek God’s guidance in undertaking everything we do in life, and everything we do in this congregation.

It turns out that nearly all of the rules that we have come to associate with prayer do not come to us from scripture, that they have been created by others, and so if they stand in the way of you engaging in prayer then cast them aside.  To hold onto them simply because you think that is the way it has to be is to become like the Pharisees in their adherence to rules over practicality.  And do you know what happens when we free ourselves from those things?  Our prayer life and ability to pray expands, and when we understand that prayer is about intentionality and attitude and purpose and humility before God, more than the words and the form, then we find that lots of things can be a form of prayer.  That singing can be prayer, that dancing can be prayer, that gardening can be prayer, that cooking and even cleaning can be prayer.  John Wesley said that Paul’s command that we are to pray without ceasing comes from the understanding that “all is prayer, when we have no other object than [God’s] love, and the desire of pleasing [God].  All that a Christian does, even in eating and sleeping, is prayer, when it is done in simplicity, according to the order of God, without either adding to or diminishing from it by [our] own choice….  In souls filled with love, the desire to please God is a continual prayer.” (A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, ch.11

We are called to be in prayer, to approach God with humbleness and with thanksgiving, opening up our lives, our concerns our joys.  Screaming at God in anger or anguish is just as much of a prayer as is lifting up a song of thanksgiving.  Prayer is the way we begin our relationship with God it is the foundation upon which we build everything else. Max Lucado has said that “When we work, we work, but when we pray God works.”  And as United Methodists we are called to be in prayer for this congregation.  We are called to be in prayer for each other.  We are called to be in prayer for the leaders of the church. We are called to be in prayer for the mission of the church, and for God’s will for the church.  Prayer is first in the membership vows because of its importance for us and for the church.  John Maxwell says that “Lots of things will determine what a church does, but the effectiveness of the church is determined by its prayer.”    Sometime in the late winter or early spring we are going to offer a class on prayer, and it will be what we talk about through the season of Lent.  But to help us remember our vows to pray I have a gift and then a request.

The first is that I invite you to take one of these magnets, and I have one for each household, and it asks the simple question, have you prayed for your church today?  Put it on your refrigerator or someplace you will see it every day, and then when you do lift up your prayers for the church.  And second, this congregation needs a prayer team.  I have been praying about this for a while, not sure what form it would take or what it would do, but I believe that my prayers have been answered by some comments that others have made to me, or directions I have been pointed in, and so I have been praying for 31 people to step up and step out and be willing to join into a prayer partner team to be in prayer for this congregation.

I am asking for 31 people because that means that each day there will be one person praying specifically for the concerns of this congregation and for our most pressing issues.  We will also meet to pray and bless the sanctuary, to pray before worship and during worship, and we will pray for God’s guidance and leadership in making this group what God needs it to be for this congregation.  I know the power of prayer, I have seen it in my own life and in the lives of churches, and I know the amazing things that can happen when we turn our concerns over to God and ask for God’s guidance in our lives and in the life of this congregation, and so if you are one of my 31, and I will certainly take more, I ask you to simply check yes on the card you will find in your bulletin and we will begin this journey together.

We are called to be in prayer, and our membership vows say that we will be in prayer for this congregation, and that will be my expectation, and I pray that it will be the expectation of everyone in here.  We will no longer be guilty of the sin of low expectations, instead we will begin to put ourselves in the path of God by engaging God is holy conversation daily.  Mother Theresa once said “Prayer is not asking.  Prayer is about putting oneself in the hands of God, at God’s disposition, and listening to God’s voice in the depths of our hearts.”  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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