Sermon for Sept. 27, 2015

Scriptures for today are Here

In an article in the NY Times a few years ago, Zev Chafetz, who calls himself a Jewish agnostic, goes on a tour to learn how to pray, or at least to observe how others pray. He visits a giant church, the Brooklyn Tabernacle, which has a 250-voice gospel choir and what the pastor calls the biggest weekday prayer service in America. People call in prayer requests that are handed out to members of the congregation, and in small groups they pray for the people who requested the prayers. Zev receives a card for Pete and Angela, who are struggling with financial problems. In his small group, he explains that he doesn’t pray, and asks someone else to do it. But then he feels bad for Pete and Angela, who requested prayers in good faith. He tells his group he’s thinking good thoughts about them, and pronounces the words of a Hebrew blessing he remembers from his childhood. He goes home not much wiser about prayer, but feeling better because he did his duty.

He continues his investigation by going to an Anglican spiritual director, who listens kindly as he tells of his spiritual journey (or lack of it), then tells him that in future sessions they will explore what is meaningful to him. He goes to a Reform Jewish synagogue, where the rabbi laments the quality of prayers in a congregation where many people live too much in their heads, not their hearts (something that some Episcopalians share!). The rabbi explains that there are really only four basic prayers: Gimme, thanks, oops, and wow! And to learn to pray, you should start with Thanks!

Chafetz visits with Catholics, who explain classic Christian spiritual exercises. He visits an interfaith prayer service with leaders from Hinduism to Islam to Judaism to various kinds of Christians, all praying together in their own way.

And then, on Easter morning, he visits a small Pentecostal congregation in West Virginia, where before the service, seeing a stranger, the kids crowd around him, and begin to talk about prayer. One explains that she prayed for her grandmother when she broke her leg, and her grandmother is getting better; one tells how she prayed for her sister’s asthma, and her sister was healed, a third tells about the whole congregation praying for a boy who was burned, and the boy was recovering.

As it turned out, this was Zev’s favorite lesson in prayer of all his visits. He writes: “I liked being in this one. Especially the kids. They didn’t need … prayer techniques, or the high-tech mantras of the Brooklyn Tabernacle. Their prayers weren’t Rabbi Gellman’s suburban Jewish prayers of Thanks! offered to whom it may concern. They didn’t pray to de-center their egos or find transcendence or to set off on a lifelong therapeutic spiritual journey. They prayed to a God with whom they were on a first-name basis, and they believed their prayers gave them power, which they used on behalf of their asthmatic sisters and infirm grandparents and a kid they knew with burns on his body. Sitting in church on Easter morning, I realized that I was probably never going to become a praying man. But if, by some miracle, I ever do, I hope my prayers will be like the prayers of the kids I met at the Love church in Berkeley Springs. Straight-up Gimme! on behalf of people who really need the help.”

The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective, says James in the Epistle today. James is a strange epistle: light on theology, heavy on living a Christian life. Some people think James is too heavy on works righteousness: that is, on arguing that our behavior as Christians is more important than our faith in Jesus. But I think if you read James closely, you see that James assumes that Jesus has already saved us, and how we act now is our response to being saved.

We just sang one of my favorite hymns: “Come thou fount of every blessing.” It’s written by an individual crying out to God; it’s a prayer for blessing. As we sing, we recognize our own weaknesses, and God’s ability to overcome them: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.” We know as we sing, that faulty, imperfect people that we are, God is able to forgive us, welcome us into his kingdom, and help us grow as new people.

James in the epistle today talks about the same thing: the sinner being brought back from wandering. First Jesus embraces us, brings us into the fold, and then everything we do after that is in response to that gift: our life becomes an extended prayer of “Thanks.”

We’ve been reading James’ letter over past few weeks in worship, and we’ve heard James talking about how people in church behave toward each other. He has talked about how Christian faith needs to be lived out in a Christian way of life; he has criticized the rich, the hypocrites; he has gone to great lengths to explain the damage that people can do to each other by unkind talk, calling the tongue a blaze that can set church on fire, a destructive fire instead of the fire of the Holy Spirit that is supposed to set us ablaze. He has criticized conflict and said flatly that faith without works is dead. His concern has been for Christian community, that we live out our faith in communities that reflect the love that God has given us as a free gift in Christ.

And today he comes to the point: all that we do is lived in the shelter of God’s grace, and therefore every Christian action is truly prayer, because prayer is Christian life, and Christian life is prayer. We live in the presence of God. So praying is the primary action that the Christian community does together, not only in formal prayer addressed to God, but in the words we speak to each other, which are also a form of prayer, for good or ill, and in the ways we reach out to each other with acts of healing, forgiveness and grace.

As the friends and relatives of the children Zev Chafetz talked to at the small church in West Virginia were healed and given the love of the Christian community through prayer, so all of us are brought together through praying together. So we pray for each other, we anoint each other for healing, we confess our sins, we give thanks and sing songs of praise together, and all these are prayer.

And in praying, we recognize two things about God: God is transcendent and mysterious, larger than we can understand or imagine; a mystery to be experienced but not explained. But God is also as close to us as our own breath, God is intimately involved in human affairs, and God is vitally interested in us, in listening to us and speaking to us, and God can truly make a difference in our lives.

Like in the gospel today, where Jesus uses exaggerated language (don’t try this at home! He doesn’t mean it literally!) to make the point that we should turn away from criticizing other Christians and instead look inside ourselves and work to remove whatever separates us from God, we pray for healing, forgiveness and grace because we believe that God can take action in our world. We believe that our faith and our longing for God is a prayer that God will answer with presence and love.

But this is a mystery too: why is it that God knows our needs before we ask, and yet the asking is important? Why is it that God loves us before we know about God’s love, and yet the prayer for healing is necessary?

The prayer of faith will save the sick, says James – but how, and why? After all, we’ve all known many people who received heartfelt prayers for healing, and yet were not cured of their diseases.

I believe that prayer is effective because it opens our hearts and minds to a reality that is beyond the material world; it brings us into a place where the spirituality that is a true and important part of us – and yet an easily ignored and often neglected part – can become integrated with our physical being. And so our prayer to God, for ourselves and for others, helps heal our spirits even when our bodies are not cured. Curing is not the same as healing. Healing can mean restoring relationships, it can mean assuring someone of God’s presence and love, it can mean giving peace and a holy end. I believe when we pray, God always answers in some way. Prayer makes a difference, in individual lives and the life of the community.

When I was studying to become a priest, I worked for a summer as a chaplain in a hospital. One day, I was called to the ICU, and found there a scene of incredible drama. A man who was addicted to methamphetamines had been injecting drugs directly into his carotid artery. He developed an abscess, which burst while he was being prepped for surgery, and a tech who just happened to be standing by put his finger in the dike and saved his life. When I got there, the man was crying out for God, asking for a Catholic priest to give him last rites. I couldn’t do that, but I could pray with him, and I did.

And over next few weeks, as he recovered physically – a medical miracle in itself – I learned his story, heard how his drug habit had separated him from his family and everything he had once worked and hoped for, had left him completely alone and bereft – and I began praying with him. And I watched as little by little, he was healed – he left his addiction behind, he restored relationships with his family. It was a miracle that wouldn’t have happened without God’s grace.

I can look at that situation and ask, why would God pour healing grace and a miracle cure on this man, who had wasted so much of his life? I don’t know. What I do know is that God loved this man, as God loves us all – and that prayer over a long period of time saved him and restored him to Christian life. Which is what the Christian community is for. We are here to help each other. We are here to pray for each other. We are here to build each other up. We pray, we sing, we confess our sins, we anoint the sick, we share a holy feast together. All of these things bring us together in the body of Christ. Because all of our life together is prayer, spoken and lived in the presence of God.

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