Sunday, July 28, 2019
Pray All Ways, Pray Always
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
So as your new rector I was looking at the readings and thinking what is it that is so important that it calls out to be the topic of this very first sermon here at St. Paul’s? The Lord’s prayer is a pretty good place to start. However, the larger topic of prayer is something that I believe is critical to the health of any Christian and certainly any parish. This passage really is about prayer and not just prayer but being persistent in our prayers.
So how you pray might be the first question for you to consider. We see Abraham praying in the form of a conversation with God in our Hebrew Scripture passage. To be honest, he is arguing with God, bargaining with God. I find this an almost humorous passage. As a storyteller I would really play this up.
“Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.”
How many of us have bargained with God like this? I certainly have done it maybe not to this extent, but it is perfectly natural and ok to bargain even argue with God. I often tell people who are grieving to yell at God. God is used people yelling at him, I can assure you of that. Those are all types of prayer even if they are not mentioned in the prayer book. They are very human responses voiced to God and are prayers.
Now I said today’s passages are about persistence in prayer. Now there is something important to know about our gospel passage that speaks to persistence. Towards the end it says, “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”
There is a verb tense in Greek that does not exist in English. The Aorist tense refers to an action that takes place in the past and continues to have an effect. My Greek teacher used this passage as an example. He said it’s like the fiesta hotdog in the cafeteria at Virginia Seminary. It’s a hotdog with a strip of horseradish down the middle. Once eaten at lunch the effect goes on for hours.
This passage could be translated as search and keep searching, knock and keep knocking, ask and keep asking. Prayer needs to be something that is more than just a one-time thing. Then we have to listen for the answer.
Margaret Gunther who wrote the book on prayer for our church teaching writes that all prayers are not an initiation of a conversation, but instead are a response to a conversation that God has already started. Stop and think about that for a moment. When you are praying especially praying for someone or something, prayers of intercession and petition we are not informing God of a need, but instead responding back to God saying, “Yes Lord I know that you have put this need on my heart, what do you want me to do?” This breaks us out of the cycle of thinking of God as a holy wishing well, which is how many approach prayer. Which brings me to the topic of the many types of prayers.
In your bulletin on the front page of the insert is a little drawing. This is from a book on prayer by Edward Hayes, one of my favorite authors on the subject. Everything he has written is wonderful. Pray All Ways is the title. Fr. Hayes says, in order to pray always as Paul teaches, we must learn to pray all ways, that is what the illustration is about. Now I’m thinking I may do a couple of classes this fall on different types of prayer and will plan some sort of quiet day on a Saturday when we can explore in depth the types of prayer including that wonderful labyrinth we have outside.
We are all busy people, so how do we find time to pray? Margaret Gunther spoke to a clergy gathering and said, “The challenge we all face is finding the time to pray. With so many demands on our time, how to make time to talk with God is important.” She said that we have to find time by praying in the cracks. She used the example of a rock climber who spends most of the time moving from hand hold to the next hand or foothold. Every once in a while, they find a place, a crack where both feet and both hands have a solid grip and they pause for a moment to rest. We get those moments during the day and that’s when we can stop for a quick prayer. Standing in line at a store stop for a moment and instead of cursing the person ahead of you with 20 items in the 15 item express lane, thank God that we live in a land of such abundance that this is a problem. Take one of those many moments when we are stuck in traffic around here and make those moments for prayer. Before walking into work or school take a moment to say a quick prayer.
When I took a sabbatical two summers ago, I walked the 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago. The ancient pilgrimage route to the burial place of St. James. One of the things I did all along the way was to consciously look for the holy, the sacred in every person and every thing I met or saw. Then I would take the time to thank God. Learning to see the holy and thanking God for that moment is a great way to expand your prayer life and really is a much better way to be then thinking the worst of everything and that is so very easy to do in today’s world.
Now one last thought. On Tuesday morning at Bible study we spoke about unanswered prayers. Someone mentioned the Garth Brooks song, “Unanswered prayers” The refrain is:
Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers
Remember when you’re talkin to the man upstairs
That just because he may not answer doesn’t mean he don’t care
Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers
Now prayers are never really unanswered. It is just that the answer may be yes, no, or not yet. However, the idea behind this song is very sound. God knows what we really need and sometimes that results in a no or a not yet. I truly understand this. Believe me anyone who has been in the search for a new job knows how easy it is to say, “Please let them call me I really want this one.” The challenge is to ask for the answer to be in accord with what God knows is best. Your will, your kingdom, not my will as Jesus teaches.
I shared a prayer with the vestry last Wednesday that really pulls this altogether and I will end with this famous prayer by Thomas Merton. If you Google Thomas Merton prayer it will pop right up in your browser. Let us pray:
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that
I think that I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire
in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything
apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this
you will lead me by the right road
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always
though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear,
for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me
to face my perils alone.