(a sermon for September 16, 2018, the 17th Sunday after Pentecost; second in a series, based on Ephesians 3:14-21 and Matthew 7:7-12)
The great Protestant reformer Martin Luther said it: “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.” And to this I would add that nowhere is this proven true more than in our time of worship together.
Actually, it’s so much a part of our routine here on a Sunday morning that it might just escape our notice how often we do pray during our service of worship. There’s the “prayer of invocation” at the beginning of the service in which we quite literally invoke the name and presence of God on our time together, there’s the “pastoral prayer” in which I lead you in our prayers of joy, concern and intercession for one another, the church and the world, and of course, we almost always repeat the Lord’s Prayer together; but then, we also say a prayer to dedicate our offerings to the glory of God and the work of the church, we pray a simple prayer of thanksgiving with the kids following the children’s message, and I always need to ask that “the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts” be acceptable in God’s sight as I stand up here to start the sermon! This is to say nothing of the additional prayers we say during communion or when there’s a baptism happening; and I should also add that it can well be said that so much of the rest of what we do here – the songs we sing, the times of laughter, tears and silence we share, and most especially the reading and proclamation of holy scripture – each in its own way includes and encourages an attitude of prayer!
All of this is to suggest to you this morning that everything we do here in our worship in fact constitutes a discipline of prayer; truly, without prayer at the center of it our gathering together – while communal and social in nature, inspirational and maybe even entertaining (!) – isn’t really worship at all! A discipline of prayer, you see, is what makes this time we share all about God, as opposed to all about us! Moreover, prayer is essential to the Christian life and an imperative for the work of the church; it would not only be arrogant of us, but also foolhardy to think that we should do anything – in and out of worship – without first discerning the presence and guidance of God in that endeavor. Prayer is, as Martin Luther suggested, akin to our very breathing as people of faith: it is what gives us life, it’s what invigorates us for standing firm in what we believe as God’s people and it’s what strengthens us for true discipleship in Jesus’ name. Indeed, if it is true that we are “made to worship,” than it is also true that we are made to pray.
Of course, none of this is to say that we are to adhere to some rigid interpretation of what that “discipline of prayer” looks like; the truth is there are as many “styles” of prayerful worship as there are traditions of faith, from the very liturgical “high church” approach to the order of service to a more deeply contemplative mixture of word and silence. Quite often even the ways we hold ourselves in prayer varies widely from church to church and even person to person!
Some years ago, Lisa and I attended a week-long pastor’s conference out in California together with hundreds of other clergy-types and their spouses from throughout the country and across the denominational spectrum; and honestly our shared worship was one of the highlights of that experience. But I will say it was different, in that we all had our own ways to worship and pray; in fact, I have to confess something to you: that one day while we were supposed to be deep in the spirit of prayer I kind of… well, looked up to check out what everyone else was doing! (I know… but I was curious and wanted to see!) And it was an amazing thing to see: a few of my colleagues were in what one might consider “reverent” posture – hands folded, eyes closed, head bowed – and yet there were many whose eyes and hands were lifted heavenward, their whole bodies swaying back and forth as they prayed. Others were embracing one another, arm in arm with tablemates who perhaps up till that moment had been perfect strangers; and then there were a few who purposefully had gone off by themselves seeking some “blessed quietness” amidst the crowd, so to speak to God one on one! And then there was the young man from the so-called “emergent church” tradition who had taken off both of his shoes and was walking around in bare feet – yup, his bare feet (!) – because, as I learned later on, he felt that when the church is at prayer, the sanctuary – whatever form it happens to take, be it cathedral or banquet hall – is holy ground, and so he was hearkening back to the Lord’s words to Moses, “Take off your sandals, for the place you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5) And here we all were, gathered together as the Body of Christ in that place, praying as one to the same God we loved and who loves us beyond measure!
The point is, there are as many styles of Christian prayer as there are people in this room, and then some; and that in the end, the words we say, the liturgy we use, or the stance we take in our prayers is of lesser importance than the place of God in that prayer. And so it is with our worship together: whether the words we say come to us courtesy of a unison prayer printed in the bulletin, or if those petitions come directly from “the eloquence of a silent heart,” the bottom line is that as we worship, you and I need to be bringing ourselves and our lives wholly and completely to the Lord in the spirit of prayer.
Actually, there’s a wonderful quote from one E.M. Bounds, who was a 19th century Methodist pastor and prolific writer, on this matter of prayer that for me says it all: Prayer, he wrote, “puts God in the matter with commanding force.” Those words might have been written over 100 years ago, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s cutting edge Christian thought! It’s a message that Christians today needs to hear (!); and, might I add, a truth that you and I at East Church would do well to embrace as our own, that whether it’s worship, fellowship or service we are always to put “God in the matter with commanding force.” And to do so begins with prayer.
Prayer spells the difference between trying to do things by our own strength and putting our lives and living in the power of God’s graceful and providential heart. That is not to say that the Lord does not respond to our petitions and our persistence; that’s central to our gospel reading this morning: “Ask and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you… how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” After all, as Jesus himself said, what parent, when their child asks for bread, will give a stone? God does answer prayer, beloved; with God, blessings abound, strength and peace are abundant, and miracles can and do happen; but first we must give our prayer to God! What we’re talking about here is a difference in attitude; it’s moving from focusing wholly on ourselves and our own abilities to get things done, to focusing on God and his unlimited resources for our lives and for his kingdom in our midst.
E.M. Bounds again: “How vast are the possibilities of prayer! How wide is its reach! What great things are accomplished by this divinely appointed means of grace! It lays its hand on Almighty God and moves him to do what he would not otherwise do if prayer was not offered. It brings things to pass which would never otherwise occur.”
It sounds incredible when you hear it that way! And yes, God sometimes says “no.” Sometimes our prayers seem to go unanswered, but the reality may be that God is responding to our need in a way we couldn’t even begin to comprehend when we said our prayer in the first place; it is true what they say about God working in mysterious ways! And also… oftentimes the response to our prayers is less about adjusting the situation we’re in than it is adjusting us for the situation! But the point that Bounds makes here is that God does work; and the first step for God to work as God will work is for us to come to God in prayer. It does seem to me, friends, that what with all the challenges we face in the church – and the world – in these times that the first and best thing we can do is to embrace all the many possibilities that prayer opens up before us and to truly let God act on those matters with God’s own commanding force!
I ask you today, wouldn’t it be great if our lives as persons and as a people could transcend the kind of concerns that always conspire to try and hold us back; you know what I’m talking about: the concerns, the fears, the “what if” questions that always seem to accompany boldness and risk? Wouldn’t it be something if the decisions we make and the priorities we set for ourselves come about because of prayerful consideration, trusting in God to provide for us amidst our concerns? Do you remember how just a very few years ago, every computer or laptop would claim that their PC’s are “Pentium Powered?” That was the end-all be-all claim that that computer could accomplish… anything! So, how would it be, then, if you and I were to make the claim that we are truly “God powered?” We also could accomplish anything!
In the end, you see, prayer is not about the words we say, nor how we say them. It’s the open heart attitude that we bring to God that makes all the difference; it’s loving God and trusting God to lead us to the place we should be with all power. Indeed, as Paul said to the Christians at Ephesus, “for this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name… and I pray that you may have the power to comprehend… what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
It’s true: after all, isn’t he the one who promises us the presence of his son, our Savior Jesus, both in times of trial and rejoicing, and who offers up his Spirit so that we might always have a sense of his presence and power as we go? It’s our gift, beloved, one that is filled with possibilities; all we really need to is accept that gift with love and gratitude… to pray.
So let us pray with thanksgiving to the God who comes with commanding force into our hearts and lives and world.
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry