St. Monica by Luis Tristan de Escamilla (1586-1624)
A sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2013. The lectionary readings are Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, and John 17:20-26.
May 4 has come and gone, but I think it’s too bad that May 4 is not Mother’s Day. That’s because May 4 in the Church calendar is the feast day for St. Monica. Monica was a fourth century holy woman perhaps known best because she was the mother of St. Augustine. Long before Augustine wrote the City of God or his Confessions, long before he became Bishop of Hippo, and before he was regarded as one of the wisest and most thoughtful theologians of the Church, Augustine was Monica’s boy, and he was a mess. He ran with the wrong crowd, he got married to a wealthy older woman to increase his social standing, he kept a mistress on the side and ignored her when she became pregnant, and on, and on, and on. All the while, his mother Monica prayed for him. She cried for him, she went to see the local bishop about her son, but through it all, she prayed. Augustine described his conversion (like the conversion of his father) as being largely due to the witness of Monica. Augustine wrote, “She never let me out of her prayers …”
Prayer has that kind of power. It has power for the one who is doing the praying and it has power for the one included in prayers, whether the person is even aware of the other’s intentions. When I pray for someone, something happens. Through prayer, I enter a new place, a spiritual place, and I take the person I’m praying for with me to that place. 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 feelings about prayer don’t matter as much as we might think. In other words, it sometimes doesn’t much matter if we’re in the mood for prayer or if prayer comes naturally. It doesn’t even matter if we even have good feelings towards the person or the people we may include in our prayers.
Paul and Silas and some others were in Macedonia, one of the Roman colonies. And there, they meet a slave-girl who is telling fortunes and making good money for the people who own her. All of a sudden, she starts following Paul and Silas and yelling things out behind them. Paul gets so annoyed (the word used in the scriptures is that he is exasperated. He is “made miserable” by her) and so he snaps. But rather than yell at her, rather than hurt her in some way, Paul prays over her. And then things go from bad to worse. The girl loses her soothsaying powers and her handlers lose their good money, so Paul and Silas are arrested and beaten up. But they pray again. They sing hymns, they praise God and call on God, and God responds with an earthquake that shakes the jail. The doors are opened, people were freed, and even the jailor and his family are 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.”
It doesn’t matter if our prayers are well-crafted or even if they are well-intentioned. Because Christ prays for us and with us, because St. Monica and the whole company of saints prays for us and with us, we are surrounded by prayer. Our prayers find their way into the heart of God even as they slowly and gently shape our own heart.
Let us continue our prayers—prayers with Christ and 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.