October 20, 2019

2019 Oct20


Proper 24 - Year C

A Sermon Preached by The Rev Ian M Delinger

 

Do you pray enough?

 

The entry on “Prayer” in the “Oxford Companion to Christian Thought” begins with the answer to this question. And in a typical British way, rather than giving a quick answer, it states:

 

Christian life has always oscillated between prayer and action, two poles often seen as symbolized by Martha and Mary, the two sisters at Bethany. While Mary ‘sat at the Lord’s feet’, Martha was ‘distracted by much serving’ and asked Jesus to tell her sister to help her, but he replied, ‘Mary has chosen the better part which shall not be taken away from her.’ Contemplation, then, is preferable to service. Modern Christianity would appear largely to have sided with Martha, which makes it the more important to do justice to prayer, as central to the entire tradition.

 

In other words: No!

 

Pastor Karen gave a sermon on The Lord’s Prayer on July 28. Guiding us through the specific petitions was helpful in better understanding how to use the prayer that Jesus taught the Disciples in our own daily lives. In Luke’s Gospel, which we have been studying since June, the Lord’s Prayer is not a directive from Jesus; it’s a request:


Luke 11:1: [Jesus] was praying in
a certain place, and after he had
finished, one of his disciples said
to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray…’

 

The directive comes after the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer when Jesus, immediately following the Lord’s Prayer, speaks of neighbors and children asking for food and being turned away or given snakes as an obscure example of how to be persistent in prayer. Now, today, a few chapters later, Jesus uses an equally obscure example of how we are to be persistent in prayer. Jesus is fairly persistent in our persistence in prayer!

 

Today’s Gospel suggests that we should be persistent in prayer, perhaps because there may be the notion that we do not pray enough. So, I wanted to see how much we pray. A 2014 Pew Research study showed that only 55% of Americans pray daily[1]. The Barna Research Group did a study in 2017 and found that 79% of American adults prayed at least once in the past three months[2]. That’s not very often!

 

The study also captured how people pray. The vast majority (82%) pray silently by themselves. A small portion (13%) pray audibly by themselves. And a scant (2% each) pray audibly with another person or group or collectively with a church.

 

What we pray for probably sounds familiar:

 

•    Gratitude and thanksgiving = 62%
•    Needs of family and community = 61%
•    Personal guidance in crises = 49%
•    My health and wellness = 47%
•    Confession and forgiveness = 43%
•    And all the way down near the bottom, 24% of people surveyed prayed for concerns about the nation or government in the last 3 months at the time of the study. We all need to be praying for the nation and government a lot more persistently!


This kind of petitionary prayer is typical and helpful for us to lift our concerns to God. There may be some guilt in asking God for things for yourself, but don’t worry; that’s a part of prayer. But prayer is both more and less than that.

 

The Catechism tells us that “prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” And, we’re told, “the principal kinds of prayer are adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, intercession, and [yes] petition.”

 

But is a shopping list of prayer petitions useful or helpful? “The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought” has a stern indictment for the prayer lives of today:

 

Prayer is often associated in the modern mind chiefly with petition, asking for things, and modern-minded philosophical theologians agonize over whether it can be right or reasonable to do so. Can praying for something actually alter the way things are or will be? ... Entering into prayer with full sincerity means entering God’s world unconditionally; when that happens, mind and heart become attuned to a different priority. Not our priorities prevail, but God’s.

 

As we offer our petitions, we are praying that, in those situations, God’s will may be done. That is what the widow was persistent in doing: asking that the judge’s will be done, and the judge was worn down and granted the widow her request.

 

It may seem odd for Jesus to tell His Disciples to pray until they wear down God and get what they want. But that’s not exactly what Jesus is suggesting. Jesus is saying: “Pray more! Have conviction in your prayers. Pray that God’s will be done in your life.” So, how do we do that?

Each of you needs a way to pray when you’re not here on Sundays, and Sunday’s liturgy may be too elaborate for some people and for all of the time. If you struggle with what to say in prayers, there are several resources:

 

  • The Book of Common Prayer is the most obvious source of prayer for Episcopalians. If you don’t have one, see me, and I’ll make sure you get one. There are various forms of prayer throughout the book, hence its name. In the front are the prayers that are specifically for personal use. Pull out the red BCP in front of you and open it to page 36. The directions (and additional directions) may seem intimidating, but once you start using the forms of prayer, it becomes routine. There are the forms of Morning and Evening Prayer in old language – Rite I – and those in contemporary language – Rite II. If you are just starting out with a set form of prayer on your own, I would suggest:

 

  • An Order of Service for Noonday on page 103
  •  An Order of Worship for the Evening on page 109
  • Or Daily Devotions for Families and Individuals on page 136.
  • They require far less preparation, the need for a Bible (because scripture is included) and no need to understand what canticle or antiphon to use when.
  • Compline on page 127 is good, too. It’s for the very end of your day, to prepare you for sleep.

 

  • Buy a book of prayers. There are many, many books of prayers. Stay away from books on how to pray. Just get yourself a book of prayers with a good subject index.
  • Pray the Psalms. Christian use of the Psalms in prayer maintains continuity with Jewish prayer, of which the Psalms were the core long before Jesus walked the earth. The Church retained the Psalms in their entirety, and they remain at the center of our corporate and personal prayer lives.
     
  • The Psalms are great because they cover the entire span of human emotion, even anger. Some people feel guilty if they feel angry at God. Why? The Psalmist expressed his anger toward God

 

  • “I say to God, my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?’” Psalm 42:9
  • Thought not in the Psalms, our OT story is a good example of how we sometimes wrestle with God. Jacob’s struggle is a wonderful metaphor for the frustration we sometimes have and need to express. God is big enough to handle anything we throw His way. The Psalms can help express what you are feeling, and this drama at Penuel brings that frustration and confusion to life.
  • And even one of the prayers of Jesus was taken from Psalm 22: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
  •  
    •  Remember those different ways of praying that the Catechism listed? Well, the Psalms cover many of them and are classified by them: adoration, thanksgiving, petition. And like our own scattered prayer lives, the Palms fluctuate from one type of prayer to another and sometimes incorporate all of them.

     

    If you can find a personal prayer groove or niche, and/or if you can use the Psalms for your prayer, combined with your participation in the Eucharist and corporate prayer on Sundays, you will carry on the tradition of prayer of the thousands of years of our Judeo-Christian history. And when in doubt, you always have the prayer which Jesus taught us: The Lord’s Prayer…completely sufficient for all of our needs.

     

    It’s important to remember that prayer doesn’t really have rigid rules aside from a genuine intent to commune with God in truth and sincerity. At is most basic, prayer is conversation with God. It becomes more fluid the more you engage in it, like conversations with good friends and family. And like with friends and family, your conversation with God might include long silences – no need to speak; just spending time in one another’s presence. Commentator Adrian Hastings writes that

     

    “The purpose of all prayer is
    union with God. The best prayer
    will not wander far from that.”


    Jesus’ parable for you to pray ceaselessly is not just that God’s will be done in your daily life, that you get what you want, or that you get to that place that you need to be in spiritually. Jesus’ call for us to be persistent in prayer is that the culmination of all our prayer comes to fruition; this is about the Parousia, the End of Days, Jesus’ return.

     

    Our participation in The Eucharist, our ‘giving thanks’ for Jesus’ Life, Death, Resurrection and Ascension, is not just to follow His Last Supper command and to remember all the good things He did on earth. The Eucharist is not only the re-enactment of Christ’s Last Supper with the Disciples and His sacrificial death; it’s not only Christ has died, and Christ is risen, but also Christ will come again! This is what all of our prayer should point toward: The return of Christ. And we must be persistent in such prayer.

     

    In today’s Gospel:

     

    “Jesus told his disciples a parable
    about their need to pray always
    and not to lose heart.”

     

    The Unjust Judge responded to the widow’s persistence, which is to illustrate to us that our God – who is just – will respond to those who put their trust in Him, because God hears our prayers, and God will ‘quickly grant justice’. The caveat is that God will most likely ‘quickly grant justice’ to accomplish God’s will, rather than our own selfish will. We know that it is God’s will that Christ will come again, to which our prayer should be directed. And we probably don’t pray enough.

     

    As you step up your prayer life, I’ll offer you some words from the introduction to the prayer book that was collated from across the Anglican Communion for the Lambeth Conference in 1998. It ended with a simple plea, a simple prayer from the Right Reverend Roger Herft, who was then the Bishop of Newcastle [Australia] and Chaplain to Lambeth Conference:


    May we find here words and
    form that free us to know the
    God who is to be worshiped in
    the beauty of holiness.

     

    [1] www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/frequency-of-prayer/
    [2] www.barna.com/research/silent-solo-americans-pray/

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