Praying

A sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Easter, May 16, 2010. The lectionary readings are Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, and John 17:20-26.

Some of you who walk or drive down Connecticut Avenue early in the morning know that on most days, after Morning Prayer in the church, I tend to walk up the street and get coffee. I like the walk. I get to admire the garden and see what’s changed since the previous day. I pass some of the same cars in the jammed traffic and say “good morning” to some of the same people many days. And at least once every couple of weeks, I pass a man gentleman who works at one of the nearby apartment buildings. Whenever he sees me, he yells the same thing—whether he’s a block away, or whether there are other people around, or whether there are cars lined up, waiting for the light to change. “Pastor,” he says, “pray for me. Pray for me, ok? Pray for me.” I wave hello and say, “of course, I do and I will pray for him. I’ll keep on praying for him.” And then before I walk away, he usually says a few more times, “pray for me, all right? Remember, pray for me.”

Thomas asks me to pray for him because I’m a priest. He knows nothing about me, really. But he knows that I work at All Souls, he expects that I pray and that my prayer includes other people. And there’s something about him, I bet, that assumes that my prayer might somehow be more effective than his own. I could argue with him theologically, spiritually, and pastorally about that. After all, the heartfelt urgency of his prayer IS prayer, I think, and the God I love and worship hears and honors and accepts Thomas’ prayer as soon as he asks me to pray for him.

God’s hears Thomas’s request for prayer, and I believe that God is working on an answer. But there’s more to it than that, isn’t there? If I do pray for him, and when I pray for him, something else happens, doesn’t it? When I pray, I enter a new place, a spiritual place, and I take the person I’m praying for with me. We are there, in some way, in the presence of God and I believe that the effects of that presence linger into our lives.

The power of prayer runs throughout today’s scriptures. The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles shows us that our intentions in prayer don’t always account for very much. In other words, it sometimes doesn’t much matter if we “feel” like praying, or if we even have good feelings towards the person we may include in our prayers. Paul and Silas and some others were in Macedonia, one of the Roman colonies. And there, they met a slave-girl who was telling fortunes and making good money for the people who owned her. And she started following Paul and Silas and yelling things out behind them. Paul got so annoyed (the word used in the scriptures is that he was exasperated, he was “made miserable” by her) and so he snapped. But rather than yell at her. Rather than hurt her in some way, he prayed over her. Then things went from bad to worse. She lost her soothsaying powers and her masters lost their good money, so they had Paul and Silas arrested and beaten up. But then they prayed again, they sang hymns, they praised God and called on God, and God responded with an earthquake that shook the jail. The doors were opened, people were freed, and even the jailor and his family were converted to God.

Notice that the prayer of Paul begins with a prayer of annoyance (do something about her, God!), then moves to a prayer of emergency (save us), and finally a prayer that ends with rejoicing, rejoicing among strangers-turned-into friends.

Prayer finds its way into our second reading in a roundabout way. Though the Revelation to John (the same John of Patmos shown in our stained glass window) has been used in a multitude of ways—to encourage people, to scare people, to sell books… the Revelation is essentially a vision. It’s the other side of prayer. It’s what happens on God’s part in response to faithful prayer: God shares his thoughts and plans and visions and dreams for us and for all of humanity. And what a vision John’s prayer finds: Christ is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega. He welcomes home his blessed ones—all those who have believed, who have been baptized, and who seek the love of God. “Come,” says the Spirit of God, “come and drink, and wash, and frolic in the Holy Water of God.” Christ’s coming will be soon. But before, during, and after; throughout the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, we have his grace. And that grace sustains us and enfolds us in his safekeeping.

In the Gospel Jesus prays for his disciples and he prays for us. He draws us closer to himself and to God through prayer, by prayer, because of prayer, in prayer. And we can do the same. We don’t have to be holy to pray. We don’t have to know anything in particular in order to pray. We don’t even have to have the right motivation (whatever that might be). It doesn’t matter what technique we use, or which words (if we use words)—if our intention is prayer, the God will hear that prayer.

And answers come. They sometimes come disguised. They usually come slowly. They often come in ways or forms or by people who surprise us because in asking God for something, our own ideas sometimes cloud the process. But God answers. God shows up. God comes through.

One of my favorite stories about prayer involves a new bishop who wanted to make a comprehensive visit of his diocese. When he heard that there was a small island with a tiny monastic community worshipping on it, he told his staff that he’d like to visit. A boat was gotten and the bishop set off to visit the little island. When he got there, three aging nuns came out to greet him and the bishop began, right away, to ask them about their prayer. As he quizzed the three, they were increasingly confused. He asked them if they prayed Morning and Evening Prayer. No, they did not, they said. Did they pray the great prayers of the Church? Well, they weren’t sure, they said. The bishop asked them if they at least prayed the Lord’s Prayer. No, they said, they didn’t think they knew that one. Finally, the bishop became frustrated and asked them, well, then, how do you pray? They look at each other, and then at the bishop, and one said, “We simply say to God, ‘We are here. You are here. Thank you.’”

The bishop was not pleased. Who were these nuns to think that they could ignore thousands of years of Christian Tradition? So the bishop spent the rest of the day teaching the nuns various prayers. He taught them the Magnificat, the Nunc dimittis, the Lord’s Prayer, and a few others. Content that the nuns had learned these essential prayers, the bishop and his staff got back in to their boat and made their way across the water.

As the boat reached the very deepest point of the water, the bishop was shocked to see a very strange sight. There, walking on the water, coming towards the boat, were the elderly nuns. “Bishop,” they said, “We’re so sorry, but we forgot one of the prayers you were trying to teach us.” Looking at these three old holy women walking on the water, the bishop finally saw their faith, their love for God and their love for one another. He told them, “You know what, why don’t you just go back to your old prayers? They seem to be working just fine.”

Let us continue our prayers—prayers with Christ, prayers with one another, that God’s love may be multiplied and enjoyed throughout the world.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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