Sermon: The Purpose of Prayer

[Preached on Sunday, July 23, 2017 (Proper 11, Year A) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, MN]

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

Genesis 28:16-17

As we pick up the story of the Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – our reading seems to have omitted a key part of the saga, the part where the feud between Jacob and his twin brother Esau had reached such a fevered-pitch, that Jacob had to run for his life. Having caught the season premier of “Game of Thrones” this past Monday with all the drama between the Lannisters, Starks, Greyjoys and Targareyans, I feel like I am in the right mindset to really appreciate a deep, family drama. Jacob had out-smarted his slightly-older, twin brother and Esau was so angry about it that he was determined to kill him.

That’s the backdrop of today’s story. When we encounter Jacob, we encounter a man whose life is in shambles. In a sermon a few weeks ago, I mentioned that “chaos and calamity can breed amnesia. That we can be easily be seduced into disremembering who we are when we are faced with the horror of the human condition.” That is true in a macro sense, but it also true when you scale it down to our individual lived experiences. When we are faced with frightening diagnoses, fraying relationships, debilitating mental illness, uncertain financial futures, the scary minutia of day-to-day living, not to mention how inundated we are with horrific news from around the world, we can so easily disremember who we are and whose we are. That is where we find Jacob when he uses a stone as a pillow and falls into a troubled sleep.

As I thought through this bizarre scene of the ladder and angels “ascending and descending” on it, it occurred to me that this could easily be a metaphor for prayer – a way that we connect to God. That’s what I want to talk about today – prayer. I think most of know that we should pray, but we tend to think about it narrow terms, some words we say or actions we perform to connect with God. I want to suggest that prayer is, fundamentally, something far broader than rhetoric and ritual. Prayer is relational. Rituals can be important touchstones on the journey of faith, markers that help us to grope our way through the darkness, but they aren’t ends to themselves. Prayer is a way of life. In fact, prayer is the way to life.

In her book The Practice of Prayer, Dr. Margaret Guenther of blessed memory, an Episcopal priest and pastoral theologian, suggests that “The practice of prayer is more than a program of devotional activity, the spiritual equivalent of twenty minutes on the NordicTrack or five minutes of tooth brushing and flossing. The practice of prayer is the work of a lifetime, touching every aspect of our life, from the search for identity to the challenge of vocation to the acceptance of death”.[1] Here, Margaret seems to suggest that prayer is more than just the things we say and do, which are all well and good. Prayer is how we shape our lives around something larger than ourselves. Dr. Rowan Williams explicitly names that new center when he says that “Growing in prayer is not simply acquiring a set of special spiritual skills that operate in one bit of your life. It is about growing into what St. Paul calls ‘the measure of the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4.13). It is growing into the kind of humanity that Christ shows us. Growing in prayer, in other words, is growing in Christian humanity.[2] Dear friends in Christ, prayer is about orienting our lives around the ultimate reality of God. In Christianity, we have an example of that in the person of Jesus Christ, a man whose life was so Godwardly focused that he could endure the absolute worst that human beings and systems could throw at him, all the while remaining compassionate and graceful. That is the kind of life we are to strive for, a life that emulates the life of Jesus Christ – a life where everything we do and say is prayer because everything we do and say is perfectly in tune with God’s dream for this world around us.

I know. I hear the gears turning in your heads. That sounds like a lofty goal. But we aren’t Jesus – we are just mere mortals. Many of us, myself included, struggle to string actual words into real sentences before a sufficient amount of coffee in the morning, and we are being asked to emulate Son of God? It can all feel so impossible.

And that might be because we feel as though the work depends on our strength alone. Prayer is, in fact, not about us doing all the work, but about giving ourselves over to God in order that God might work in us. It is about recognizing the amazing invitation of Christ when he says “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”.[3] The rest that we seek in God is found when we give over to God those things that weigh us down – our worry, our anxiety, our fear, our insecurities, and our pride. Prayer is “letting Jesus pray in [us], and beginning the lengthy and often very tough process by which our selfish thoughts and ideals and hopes are gradually aligned with his eternal action.”[4] Prayer is about gradually letting go in order to be apprehended by God all the more.

Growing up, I remember hearing the phrase “prayer changes things” a lot. In my younger years, I literally thought prayer was like magic spell from Harry Potter: say the right words with the right motion and presto! You’d get what you want. Except that prayer doesn’t really work that way. I can never, not one time, remember praying for something and getting exactly what I wanted.

I can remember being changed by encountering God over and over again, by offering God my deepest fears and wildest dreams. That’s how I learned that “prayer changes things” – by starting with us. By allowing Jesus to pray in us, we begin ceding to God the center of lives, not because our wishes, dreams, needs, and desires are bad, but in order to place them in the larger context of God’s ongoing divine activity in the world. When we do this – when we make God the center – our hearts expand to experience greater levels of the joy and pain of the human condition. In other words, in prayer we become more like Christ. Prayer is molding our language and our lives after the likeness of Christ in order that we might carry out his mission of compassion, grace, justice, and mercy in this world.

Evagrius Ponticus, one of the Desert Fathers who fled into the Egyptian desert to pursue a life of discipline and prayer, once said this: “If you are a theologian, you pray truly; if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”[5] What he means by theologian has nothing to do with a field of academic study. He isn’t saying that to understand Christianity you must be a practitioner of Christianity. Rather, by theologian, he means a person whose life is perfectly oriented towards God. He is saying that prayer is both the end of our lives and the means to that end because the purpose of our lives is perfect communion with our Creator.

Prayer is a life lived Godward. The words we say, the rituals we perform, even coming to church each week – these are all incidents of prayer, meant to take place within the larger context of a life that is oriented more and more in a Godward direction. They are episodes of grace, meant to overflow and saturate every aspect of our lives until we, like Jacob, awaken to the blessed reality that, even in the midst of the chaos that should threaten to undo us, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and we did not know it!”

Amen.


[1] Margaret Guenther, The Practice of Prayer (Cambridge, Mass: Cowley Publications, 1998), 4-5.

[2] Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, and Prayer (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2014), 61.

[3] Matthew 11.28

[4] Williams, Being Christian, 63.

[5] Evagrius Ponticus, De oratione 60.

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