Saturday, September 29, 2012

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Let Us Pray...

Readings for this Sunday:  Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50

We gathered for the closing worship of the Fall Theological Conference.  When it was the time for the prayers, our Bishop invited one of the pastors to the front.  Last year, she discovered she had cancer.  We prayed for her then, gathering around her as she knelt at the rail.  Those of us closest reached out and placed a hand on her.  The rest of us laid a hand on the shoulder of the person in front of us.  The group, connected in body and spirit, prayed over her.
This year we again laid hands on her and prayed, thanking God for the successful treatments so far and trusting her to God’s loving care.

I think at that moment I witnessed the church at its best – when we pray for one another.

Our reading this morning is full of prayer –
          ·      pray with the suffering,
          ·      song of praise, which are another way of praying,
          ·      prayer and anointing the sick,
          ·      praying for one another.
James outlines a community that cares for one another – praying together, rejoicing together, confessing and forgiving together.

Last week, we asked questions about God and our faith.  There were several questions on prayer.  Since James paints a picture of a community in prayer, I thought today would be a good day to answer some of those questions.

How can you pray?  What’s the right way to pray?
There really is no right way to pray.  It’s not a magic formula that you have to say just right to get what you want.  Prayer is conversation with God.  In prayer we talk to God like we are talking to a friend.

It sounds so easy. Still many of us don’t feel confident to pray, especially to pray out loud.  We hear someone else’s prayer or the prayers on Sunday morning and think that our own prayers are never as good.

You know, Jesus disciples asked him the same question.[i]  They had seen him spend time in prayer, and heard him pray.  Talk about being intimidated by someone else’ prayer.  Imagine hearing Jesus pray. No wonder they wanted to learn how to pray like him!

Jesus responded by teaching them what we now call the Lord’s Prayer.  That’s a great place to start learning how to pray.  It covers everything – we praise God, we pray for God’s will to be done, ask for what we need, ask for forgiveness and for help to forgive, ask for God’s help to resist temptation and for God’s protection from the evil out there.    

Another great place to learn how to pray is in the Psalms.  The Psalms are the prayer book of the Bible.  There’s a prayer for every human emotion from joy to despair.  Find a psalm that you like and pray it, verse by verse.  We do this every Sunday, when we read the psalm for the day – as a congregation we are praying the psalm on behalf of the world. 

Some people feel more comfortable using written prayers, like the prayers in the hymnal, or a book of prayers, or even praying a hymn.  And that’s perfectly fine.  That’s exactly what those prayers are for – to give you words at times when you can’t find words of your own.

The prayers on Sunday also teach us ways to pray.  In the Prayers of the People, there’s a space for you to name something or someone that each part of the prayer might make you think of.  The easiest example of this is when we pray for the sick or those in need – in that pause, you might think of someone you know who is sick and name them. 

Sometimes, your prayer can be really simple – “help me, God.” 

Sometimes, you might feel like just talking to God like you do a friend.

And there are times when you want to pray, but have no words.  In those moments, the Spirit prays for you, “with sighs too deep for words.” [ii]

Pretty much, any way you pray is fine with God.  The only thing Jesus teaches us not to do is to pray to impress others.[iii]

Do I pray to God or Jesus?  Is God the one to go to in prayer every day?
When we confess the creeds, we say we believe in God the Father, in Jesus the Son and in the Holy Spirit.  So essentially, if you pray to Jesus, you’re praying to the Father and the Spirit.  If you pray to the Father, you’re praying to Jesus and the Spirit, and if you pray to the Spirit, you’re praying to the Father and Jesus.  The three persons are all the same God – that’s what we mean when we talk about the Trinity. 

We use a lot of different names for God.  In the Prayers of the People for today, God is called:
             Holy God
          God Most High
          God our Refuge
          God of Mercy
          God of grace,
          O Lord our strength and our redeemer
          Faithful God
It’s all the same God – we’re just naming different qualities of God.

Can you pray anywhere?
Anywhere and everywhere.  Any time and at all times.  Standing, sitting, kneeling.  Lying on your bed, driving a car, in church or at home.  If we talk to God as we talk to friends, then think of prayer as your cell phone to God – you can pray anywhere you could use a cell phone.  In fact, you can pray in places where cell phones aren’t allowed.

Unanswered prayer
The last question is a hard one to answer:  Why doesn’t God answer my prayer?

Jesus tells us that if we ask, it will be given, and God gives good gifts to God’s children.[iv]  He teaches us that if two or three ask anything in his name, God will do it.[v]  In our reading today, James tells us that prayer is powerful and effective.

Yet, we know that sometimes our prayers seem to be unanswered.

This is one of those questions we have to wrestle with as a community.  And there may be no answer this side of heaven.

The thing is, we live in a broken world, where sin, death and the forces of evil still hold sway.  A world where people use their God-given free will to choose to live in ways that cause harm to themselves and to others.  This brings up the question of suffering – which is a whole other sermon.

We also know that God’s timing is different than ours – sometimes what we think is a ‘no’ is really a ‘not yet.”  And we know that sometimes God answers our prayers in ways we could not imagine.

So, we pray, trusting that God hears our prayers. 

We pray, knowing that God is a loving Father who gives good gifts to his children. 

We pray, handing over our hurts and our needs to the God who knows what we need before we even ask.

We pray, resting in presence of God who is with us in the midst of our joys and our sorrows.

And those prayers are powerful and effective.

We’re praying for J’s great-niece.  J was talking to the little girl’s mother, and they were talking about everyone who is praying for them – her church, us, other churches who have heard about her cancer.  And her mother said, “It means a lot to know so many people are praying for her.”  We don’t know yet how God is going to answer our prayers for this little girl, but her mother is strengthened and comforted because of the prayers of those who are suffering with her.

Today, we will rejoice with G and his parents at his baptism.  We’ll thank God for the gift of this little boy.  We share their happiness and pray for God’s blessing on this family. 

We are praying each week for H, and L, and K, and N.  We may not gather around them and lay on hands, as my pastor’s gathering did for our friend, but we pray just as earnestly for them.  Our prayers for healing the body also bring healing of the soul to them and their families. 

We pray for each other.  And God takes our prayers and weaves together a community of faith and hope and love.

Let us pray…

[i] Luke 11:1, followed by Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer.  The version we are more familiar with is in Matthew 6:9-13.
[ii] Romans 8:26-27.
[iii] Matthew 6:5.
[iv] Matthew 7:7-11.
[v] Matthew 18:19-20.

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