Struggling with Prayer – A Sermon

You can listen to my sermon here.  Or read on.

Last week, Father Keith made a startling confession from this pulpit: one which, I’m sure changed the way you see him as your spiritual leader.  Keith doesn’t like stand up dinner parties. <Gasp!> This week, I too have a confession to make, and it maybe isn’t as provocative as Keith’s but it is one that has been a real struggle for me over the past several years.  My confession is that I find prayer to be something of an enigma.  I don’t really understand prayer, and my very type-A mind has a really hard time with things I can’t understand logically.

This isn’t to say that I don’t pray.  I do.  I pray for my family, for this parish, for our diocese, and for the Church.  I pray every time a prayer request comes through my inbox, and whenever someone asks me to lay hands on them and ask for healing.  My most profound spiritual moments come when I’m standing behind that altar, lifting up, on your behalf, the words of thanksgiving in our Eucharistic Prayers.  I’ve seen miracles happen.  I’ve watched peace descend from above.  I have full confidence in the power of prayer.  I know that God does amazing things in and with and through his people, and yet, I still struggle to wrap my mind around prayer.

I’m certain I’m not the only one who struggles with prayer.  In my ordained life, prayer is a top-5 theme in the questions I get asked.  The problem seems to lie in the fact that nobody understands prayer.  The tradition tells us that God is sovereign: God is going to do what God is going to do, no matter what we do or say.  The tradition is wildly unsatisfying, but so are some modern notions of prayer.  The idea that one can “pray harder” and someone will be healed or find love or sell a house or get saved, takes the onus of our all-powerful God and puts it all on our broken humanity.  At its logical extreme, this modern understanding of prayer pits my faith in direct competition with yours when on National Signing Day, I pray for Alabama while you pray for Auburn or Ole Miss or Tennessee.

If we can’t look to the tradition and if we can’t rely on modern theological understandings, where are we to turn in order to better understand prayer?  Well, Jesus, of course: especially the version of Jesus that we find in Luke’s Gospel.  For Luke, prayer is central to the life of faith.  It plays a key role in every major part of Jesus’ life and ministry and it is present again and again in Luke’s second volume, the Book of Acts.  A few weeks ago, we found Jesus praying after his baptism, when suddenly the heavens were torn in two, the Spirit descended as a dove and Jesus was declared as God’s beloved Son.  In Luke 6, Jesus goes up a mountain to pray and after an entire night spent in prayer, he brought together the whole group of disciples and called out of it the twelve as apostles.  On the night that he was betrayed, Jesus took his disciples to the Mount of Olives, and, having instructed them to pray, he went a little ways off, knelt down, and prayed perhaps the most intimate prayer we will ever be privy to, “Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me.  Yet I want your will, not mine” (22:42, NLT).  As he hung on the cross, we’re told that once again, Jesus prays this time asking his Father to forgive those who had tortured him and sentenced him to death.

This morning, we heard the story the Transfiguration.  Luke, like Matthew, has borrowed this story from Mark, but has made some changes to it.  Not least of those changes is that Luke places the Transfiguration squarely in the context of prayer.  Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the mountain with the express purpose of praying.  As Jesus prayed, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became as bright white as lightening.  His disciples, in a scene reminiscent of the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (or on the Mount of Olives) are too tired to keep up with Jesus prayer for prayer, but, we are told, they were still awake enough to notice the spectacle unfolding before them.  What seems clear here is that for Jesus, if not so much for his disciples yet, prayer involves a dramatic encounter with the power of the Most High.  For Jesus, prayer is not a laundry list of “pleases” and “thank yous”, but instead it is the continuation of a long standing, ongoing, deep and powerful relationship between Jesus and his Father.  When it comes to prayer, for Jesus, it was about a real spiritual encounter with the Living God.

And, lest we think that that sort of relationship was only possible between God and his Son, Luke again and again writes of the power of prayer all through the book of Acts.The power of prayer is exhibited by the disciples as the early church experiences a literal earthquake of God’s power having prayed for boldness to preach the gospel.  It continues to manifest in the outsiders outsider, Cornelius the Gentile Centurion, who Luke tells us was a man of regular prayer.  Cornelius receives an angelic vision that tells him to invite Simon Peter into his home, and the very next day, Peter, also immersed in prayer, receives the vision of the sheet in which God declares all things acceptable in his sight.  Prayer opens prison doors for Peter and later for Paul and Silas.  It is clear that for Luke, prayer is a powerful and important thing.  It also seems clear that we should expect such mighty acts of God as much today as Jesus and the apostles did two-thousand years ago.  The shame of it, and the crux of my unsteady relationship with prayer, is that I don’t think that culturally we really believe that prayer is a one-on-one encounter with the impassible God.

Instead, we’ve taken prayer back to its latin roots and made it impotent.  We’ve made prayer into mere “precari” in which we entreat God, earnestly and anxiously, to do what we need him to do for us, and our general politeness reminds us to say “thank you” with some regularity.  The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, a book I’m sure each of you has tucked neatly on your bedside table, defines prayer as “A human approach to God and addressing God in praise and adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication, and intercession.”  This is a good, solid Protestant understanding of prayer, but if we stop it there, we are missing the fullness of the promise.  The WDTT goes on to say that in prayer, “A consciousness of God’s presence, love, direction, and grace may be experienced.”

Perhaps my expectations are too high, but I want to turn that “may be” into a “will be.”  I want to feel the presence of God Almighty in my thoughts and in my bones.  I want God to answer the prayer that is the Collect for today.  I want to “behold by faith the light of Jesus’ countenance.”  I need to “be strengthened” literally and figuratively “to bear my cross.”  I want to “be changed into Christ’s likeness from glory to glory.”  I want power and might and healing and restoration for me and I want it for you and I want it for the whole world.  I want transfiguration to happen for all of creation!

And it all starts with prayer. “About eight days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ of God, Jesus took Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.” I struggle with prayer, and I know that some of you do too, but this morning I am convinced that the key is to keep on doing it: to foster that relationship with God Almighty, to expect great things, to expect difficult challenges, and to grow into Christ’s likeness.  Transfiguration and transformation are available to us all; the key is to be faithful.  Amen.


7 thoughts on “Struggling with Prayer – A Sermon

  1. I really like this sermon. Prayer is indeed a tricky thing. Like you, I’ve struggled with it, and I think you say so clearly what my struggle has been. I like this as a great pre-Lenten call to prayer. It will help me focus my own prayers during Lent. Thanks.

  2. Pingback: SR: The Flawed Inner Circle « Theologybird Writes

  3. It is encourageing to me to know that even priests have these same thoughts. Your next to the last paragraph says what I think most of us feel. But, I will keep on praying!!!!

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