Learning to Pray

prayer11-720x380A sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, June 2, 2019. The scripture readings are Acts 16:16-34Psalm 97Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20-21, and John 17:20-26

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Last Sunday, at the end of the 11 am worship service, a parishioner was carrying his four-year-old daughter, and stopped to speak on their way out.  He said, “Father John, my daughter wants to say something to you.”  Immediately the little girl turned shy and wouldn’t look at me.  After several attempts, her father asked her, “What if I begin and you say it with me?”  And then the father and daughter began to say, “Now I lay me down to sleep…”  The little girl continued, “I pray the Lord my soul to sleep… no, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…”  She got a word or two mixed up, but she got the idea.

I thought about our little parishioner’s learning to pray this week, as I’ve thought about today’s scriptures.  Though she stumbled over a few syllables, she got the idea.  And with Christ praying alongside us, that’s really as developed a prayer as she’ll ever need.

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 necessarily matter if we even have warm feelings towards the person or the people we may include in our prayers—we can still pray for them, and allow God to work with the energy of our prayer.

In our first reading, Paul and Silas and some others are 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) that 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 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.

Though the Church often seems to complicate prayer by modeling beautiful, well-crafted, poetic prayers; or by putting so much attention on complicated forms of chant or sung prayers; the great truth of our faith is that prayer is the simplest thing in the world.  It’s just talking with God and listening for God.

The four-year-old parishioner I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon is just learning to pray, using a well-known children’s prayer.  I’m sure she’ll learn some more prayers in the future, but her stammering attempt can remind us that the eloquence doesn’t matter as much as the communication. God waits to hear us and to answer, in return.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  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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