The sermon for week September 25, 2011
WHEN YOU PRAY, Philippians 2:1-13
Jesus said, “When you pray...” The assumption is, you do pray, and I think, everybody does pray, in one form or another, there is that impulse, that desire, that act of praying.
We do it both intentionally and at times almost unconsciously, the spirit in us sometimes taking over in ways our conscious mind would not allow, and we say, where did that come from, that turn of phrase, that word, directed beyond ourselves in that moment, to God, a plea, a petition, or ecstatic exclamation.
It is a wonder, a mystery, that we the created can address the Creator, that we who have been given the breath of life can commune with the Giver of life, that we who are born to die, can find solace in this life in the presence of the eternal. We pray.
This morning I would like to speak on the subject of prayer in our life, more specifically, three dimensions of prayer, three different avenues for praying, three ways of being in the presence of the Holy through prayer: each intended to lead us closer to God, gifts given that they might be received, that we might know, “God is with us,” and in all ways, God is worthy of our trust.
Although it may seem the Scripture we read this morning is not connected to the subject of praying, it has, for me, become a source of inspiration in my praying and increasingly a hoped for practice as I pray.
We begin where I think all of us begin, in the spoken words we address to God. Most of us know prayer as an act of speaking, ending with ‘Amen.’ It begins in the prayers we teach our children.
There is no greater gift a parent can give a child than in teaching a child to pray and making prayer a part of the home. Every couple I counsel prior to officiating at their wedding, I encourage, that when they have children, whether or not they do it now, they teach their children to pray, especially at meal time. Too early, children are exposed, especially through television, to all the violence and tragedies of this world. They need to know that beyond that reality, is the reality of God’s Love, and that Love is for them and with them and out of that Love they came to be. So you pray at meal time, “Thank you God for loving us and for this day and for this food, and thank you God, for one another.”
I don’t think you ever out grow this kind of prayer, the words you speak to God, remembering it was by a word God created a world, and included in those words you speak to God, will be your petitions. You ask - that is part of praying.
When you are young you pray, “God bless mommy and daddy,” and when you are old, no matter how old, it will be your children for whom you pray, and probably more fervently, for never will you know a greater love than the love you have for your children. Never do you out grow that need to be able to entrust them into a greater Reality than your own ability to care for them. Always there will be that need to pray for those you love.
This is why, every Thursday morning at 8:30 a.m., we have a small group of people who gather in the Fellowship Room to pray for members of this congregation and the wider world, and it is done in the confidence that their words are heard and answered. It is not superstition, but it is love beating in our hearts, uniting with the Love from which all love is born, speaking the words God speaks for the one for whom we pray.
But, it is as well speaking of the simple things. There is nothing wrong in praying for whatever is on your mind. So, Moses prayed and God provided mannon in the wilderness and Moses prayed again and God brought water from a rock. Henry Sloan Coffin, the great progressive, activist, former pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, a United Church of Christ Church in Manhattan, wrote, that if you wake up in the morning and you have a knee that is bothering you or a hang nail, that is what you should pray for. God, give me relief from this infirmity. He wrote, you should be as specific as possible in your praying.
Now, these specifics may change as you get older. I had a professor who told us about a prayer his son prayed. They were to go on a picnic the next day and the son prayed that it wouldn’t rain. After his prayer the father said to him, you are getting older now, and rather than praying for no rain, which farmers might need, you might instead pray that whatever the weather, our family have a good time together. But even if the child prays for no rain, or we pray for what might seem silly or superficial, we know how ever we have stated it, God hears the deeper longing or desire from which that request was made, and God answers that longing or desire of the heart.
As we get older we may practice a certain discernment, but still in our prayers we speak and we ask. God, I’m so lonely, send someone into my life. God, I feel so bitter, help me work through this anger I feel. God, I’m so scared, walk with me down this dark alley of my life. Or, God, I am having such a good time, don’t let the music stop, don’t let my negativism invade this evening. Or, sometimes it will be that all we know to do is speak the name of the one we love, not knowing the words to speak. Or, sometimes in desperation, so overwhelmed are we, the only prayer we know to pray, whispered or shouted, will be, “Please God, Please.”
In these prayers of few words we begin to understand another dimension of prayer, and that is the prayer where we do not speak, but sit and listen.
Thursday morning, two weeks ago, I was driving to the church to meet with the prayer group. It was one of the most beautiful mornings of the season. The air was crisp and clear, the sun was smiling brightly on the landscape, and friendly clouds sailed across an ocean of blue sky. I was distracted from my distractions, alert to the present, awakened, alive, grateful, creation seemed to be singing an aria of praise. I got to the church, and every individual mentioned, as they entered, what a beautiful morning.
Then, the prayer list was read, concerns were shared, and we prayed, or rather I should say, we spoke our prayers, a dimension of prayer, a way in which we pray, but, on the way to church, in that communion with the morning, when no words were spoken, though unarticulated, we were in prayer. Prayer is more than words. It is communion. It is being with God in the present, alive in the moment, an experience of the Apostle Paul’s counsel to “pray without ceasing.” At the end of such times you may whisper, “Amen,” or “Thank you, God, thank you,” but even if these words do not get spoken, still for awhile, the veil was lifted, and your spirit rested there with God. Silence, not words, became the language of communion.
I think we are more religious than we think we are, but our spirit knows. God is present beyond our thinking or imagining Him to be so, and silence is often the avenue of God’s appearing. Not all prayer is words. In fact it is often found, that the more you pray, the less need there is for words.
You sit and you listen. You follow the pattern of the psalmist who wrote, “Be still and know that I am God.” (46:10).
It is a way of preparing yourself for great endeavors. It is a way of getting to know yourself, and it is a way of being with God.
What normally happens, however, is if you seek to make this silence a willful part of your prayer, your will or desire is not strong enough. A thousand voices will enter your head, clamoring for your attention. Everything that is in you will rise up saying, “Listen to me, Listen to me.” You will hear about your financial worries, the chores waiting for your attention, sexual fantasies will be there, memories of an unpleasant encounter, everything will invade, the minute you seek a bit of asylum in silence.
In your mind you see them, you hear them, and here is what you do. You don’t fight them. You don’t try to win. You acknowledge these distractions, and as they come before you, you make them part of your prayer. You offer these diversions up to God as part of your prayer, you give them over, and then you return to the silence, and you focus on the one thought, the Love of God, and you keep doing it, and repeating it, until at last, perhaps in the beginning for only a few moments, not even the thought is necessary, and you rest in the presence of the One whose love for you is everlasting. You are loved and in that love is all forgiveness and empowerment to love as you are loved. It is as you always are but now it is more real to you. You are loved with a love that will not let you go,a love that was with you before you were born and will be with you in your dying.
Now, maybe I am sounding too esoteric and making more difficult what should be simple and that is our praying. We pray, and the simplicity of it is it can be both spoken and silence; it is speaking and listening, but in our praying there is one other dimension that is that by our praying we learn to surrender. Prayer is not just asking. Prayer is not only listening. Prayer is surrender.
There is a hymn that begins, “All to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give.” There are no exceptions. There is no divide. It is everything.
I said at the beginning, this sermon really does relate to the passage we read in Philippians this morning, and here is where it is. Paul writes of Christ, “and he emptied himself.” By that Paul means Christ gave up all the glories of heaven and took on to himself human form that he might be like us. He emptied himself, being born in human form, taking on the likeness of a servant. And Paul writes, “Let this same mind be in you.”
Prayer is the act of that self emptying. It is giving up everything. It is saying in our spoken prayers, “God, here are my children. I entrust them to you. Hear are my worries, I give them to you. Here are my secrets, I share them with you.” Nothing is left out. No one else is worthy of such abiding and radical trust.
And in our quest for silence. It is taking all those distractions and leaving them with God. And, in the silence it is resting, trusting in the love of God to love you in the same way Christ trusted in the love of God when He emptied himself to become like us. It is learning to pray, “Take my life and let it be, consecrated Lord to thee,” and trusting through those words, that God’s will is our well being.
Now, this may all sound to you to be very spiritual but not very practical, but that is the false dyconomy we make. In fact it has everything to do with the way we live.
You are loved by a love that is so worthy of your trust that you can give it everything and know you will be denied nothing.
You are loved by a love that is so complete that there is no secret that you can share that will change that love for you.
To for a moment stand in the presence of that love is to find the courage to stand for what is right on earth. As it was true for Martin Luther King, Jr, and Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement and Mother Theresa, and Bishop Tutu, and Henry Sloan Coffin, so it is true for each of us - prayer and action, prayer and social justice, prayer and peace, payer and hope, prayer and living are not two separate things, but go together, threads in the same fabric.
“When you pray,” says Jesus. What beautiful words. What life giving words. What words of hope. What words of peace. What words of love. When you pray, says Jesus.