Yesterday I preached at St. Peter's Lewes. The subject was prayer. It was a difficult sermon to write and I did so carefully, and read it more or less as written here. The opportunity for pastoral or theological missteps are many and the possibilities for heresy abound. Which is why, I suppose, sermons on prayer are few and far between. While not really satisfied with the sermon I believe there is something about the "leverage of the suffering of the world" that rings true. Well, here it is.
The Leverage of Prayer
Sunday August 17, 2014
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has urged all of us, as Episcopalians, to observe this Sunday, Sunday, August 17, as a day of prayer for those in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East living in fear of their lives, livelihoods, and ways of living and believing.
I am glad she has done so. We pray weekly for peace and an end of all wars. But the invitation to be specific in our prayers is always welcome. We will indeed pray at the time of the prayer of the people, for all the people of Iraq and other countries in the Middle East who are suffering, including those in Gaza and Israel.
We don’t often talk about what it is we pray for and why.
We all, you and I, have a prayer life, and that we do indeed pray for justice, mercy and peace in a whole variety of ways, privately and publicly. And we pray for people we know and people we don’t. . To the extent that we can, we pray without ceasing. When I have been asked in various job interviews about my spiritual life, I say “I have a rich spiritual life, but it is somewhat chaotic.” And so it is, but I am aware of being at prayer a lot of the time, seeing the world through the burden of this or that concern in prayer. I suspect you do to.
For a moment, let’s think about prayer as it relates the troubling events of the world. There are many troubles these days. Just to name some, the terrible conflicts in Gaza and Israel, the struggles that are reconfiguring the power and state maps throughout the Middle East all of which are devastating to life and peace, and for the concerns for peace with the US in places where police and local citizens have clashed. Add to that our concerns and prayers for those who suffer and die the uneasy deaths of suicide and despair, or from violence by those who were meant to be protectors.You have other things to add to this list I am sure.
How are we to pray? What do we pray for? What does our hope, as Christians, offer us? Where does the Gospel lead us regarding such concerns?
Well, Carlyle Gill or one of the other notable praying folk here in the parish can take us there. We could use a wider conversation about prayer. But that is not my job here. Here let’s look at some immediate help regarding prayer in the Gospel today.
When we pray it is good to remember that on a whole variety of accounts we are like the woman who prays, begs, cajoles, pleas for her daughter. She has no “standing” no passport, no creditability before Jesus except that of faith. The faith is not, by the way, that Jesus could heal – she knows he can heal. Rather the faith was that Jesus would yield. The woman believed that if she kept at it, her argument would carry the day – and her argument was simple: her child needed healing.
It didn’t matter whether she was pure, or undefiled, or part of the people Israel. She was none of those. She was a Canaanite woman, a member of a people known to be defiled, unclean and idolaters. So be it. But she wasn’t arguing from any position of her own. She had no leverage, save the suffering of her child.
You and I in our prayers might do well to remember this woman and her prayers and demands. The leverage for our prayers is the suffering of the world, which suffering, we believe, demands God’s attention. It is not about our right to expect anything from God, its about our right, and perhaps duty, to petition God.
Many have said, “If God allows suffering, what makes us think our prayers have any value. Suffering just is. We can’t all expect our prayers to be answered.”
True, suffering just is. It just is. And we have no right to expect miracle or intervention or alleviation of suffering. That may come, but it is not something we have a right to expect.
What we have is the right of petition, of prayer. We have the right to ask for what we want for the suffering of the world.
And our faith is that that right of petition will be heard, and that at the last will be acted on. One of the reasons Christians talk about the end of the age, the return of Christ, is that we believe at the last all will be made right, and all tears will be wiped away. There will be a great getting up morning when we will see justice done, the truth prevail, and mercy done.
But in the meantime we need to be clear: we pray for the suffering of the world, and our license is that suffering itself.
And in doing so we need to pray that we might be instruments, as much as possible, for the relief of that suffering. Because, until that great getting up morning, we are the immediately available expression of God’s love and care of the suffering.
That is why, for example, when people come to our side chapel for healing prayers for others we often anoint the one who comes, that she or he might be an instrument of healing for the one whose name they have brought forward.
The faith of that Canaanite woman was the faith that the Word- God, Jesus- would yield and attend to the child. She asked for, and received intervention. Of course she was intervening herself. She was an instrument of healing, along with Jesus.
Remember another occasion Jesus said to another stranger and foreigner, the one blind man who turned back to give thanks, “go, your faith has made you whole.” In our pleas for those who suffer, we become part of the healing. Our faith becomes part of the universal plea for healing.
How much do we really want peace, justice and mercy in the world? Enough to plea constantly for it, not counting the cost, demanding of God (from whom we have no natural right to be heard), constant in the faith that God will yield to the suffering of the world, expressed in the prayers of poor sinners like you and like me? Are we willing to pray without ceasing?
Our prayers in times of great difficulties in the world need to be accompanied by a constant push against all voices that say that we have no right to be heard, filled with the faith that our prayers have the authority that belongs to the suffering world.
There are spiritual models for this constant persistent prayer. Gandhi believed that if the objective was true and just and the constant prayer of millions was for that end even unthinking and brutal imperial powers would have to yield. At the last truth, peace and mercy would prevail. What would it be like for the whole world to pray for peace NOW?
I think too that our prayers find their greatest strength in our willingness to be the justice, peace and mercy we pray for.
Jesus says it is not what we take in (our practices, diets, even misplaced invocation of false gods) that defiles us. It is what proceeds from us that defiles – and there the list is about our evil intentions (I have a few, I suspect you do to). And the opposite is true as well, it is what proceeds from us that glorifies. In some traditions when a preacher prays, and the prayer rings true, members of the congregation, or the preacher herself will shout, “Glory!” The prayer that is pure in intention is a source of glory.
Our prayers need to come forth from our mouths with pure intention. Which means, dear friends, that we cannot pray for justice and practice injustice, we cannot pray for peace and have hate in our hearts, we cannot pray for mercy and comfort when we given none.
It is for this reason that the hidden meaning of our prayers for the world are found in our willingness to engage the world with purity of heart.
A friend, Chris Brennan Lee writes a blog called People’s Prayers. She begins this week with a short paragraph that pretty well sums up the matter of prayer for the suffering of the world.
“It is definitely not my job to decide who is the right type to be chosen, that is all God's domain and God chooses even those I don't think are right. But it is my job to speak up and out, loudly and with conviction, persistently and continuously to God and to everyone else whenever a wrong must be righted, a truth must be told, and a life must be saved. Giving voice to our faith, speaking the good of our hearts through the opening of our mouths, let us do our jobs to care for our children and, for anyone who is a child of God. Let the crumbs fall where they may.”
Let us do our job… to pray unceasingly for the suffering of the world, leveraged by that suffering itself, and by purity of heart. AMEN.