Elements of Worship: Prayer

This week’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville.  2nd of 5 in a series on the Elements of Worship.

The text is Matthew 6:5-15.

Mahatma Gandhi, the great Indian social reformer, once said something quite profound when someone asked him what he thought of Christianity.  He said, “I like your Christ but I don’t like your Christians.  They are so unlike your Christ.”  In a similar vein, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said to a group of Christians (in his typically caustic fashion), “Yuck, you make me sick!  Because you redeemed don’t look like you’re redeemed!”

While these comments are more than a little bit harsh, I think we Christians have to admit they are also more than a little bit true.  For a long time, Christians have held onto a crazy idea that we are the guardians of infallible doctrine and impeccable morals.  The end result of this idea is that the rest of the world has come to see Christians, not as messengers of good news and amazing grace, but as “sour-faced saints” with their halos screwed on just a little too tight.  Under these circumstances, church becomes little more than a “holy club” for people with an answer for every question and a solution to every problem.

Is this who we’re meant to be?  I think not.  Consider Nietzsche and Gandhi’s words in reverse: how would you describe someone who “looks like” he or she is “redeemed”?  Can you imagine what it would be like to live in moment-to-moment awareness of the truth that within, behind, and beyond the apparently random facts of life there is, at the very heart of the universe, a “Love that will not let me go”?

Christians (in their better moments) believe there has been at least one such life in the course of human history.  By this, I am referring of course to the life of Jesus.  Folks come out in droves to celebrate with us at Christmas and Easter the beginning and the end of Jesus’ thirty-something years on Earth (and we’re delighted to welcome them on those days).  But there are, of course, fifty other Sundays of the year when we celebrate everything that happened in the middle!  Jesus’ amazing life is something worth remembering, celebrating, and imitating all year long.  There is something so wonderful about the life of Jesus that even Gandhi, a devout Hindu, sat up and took notice.

“I like your Christ, but I don’t like your Christians.  They are so unlike your Christ.”

What was it about the life of Jesus that caught Gandhi’s attention?  What kind of moment-to-moment awareness of Love’s presence did Jesus live with?  One phrase that he liked to use more than any other was “the kingdom of heaven.”  For him, this wasn’t some far away realm where angels played harps on clouds, but a very present reality.  For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven was very near, “at hand,” closer to every atom than its own nucleus, closer to every person than her own soul.  If you asked him to describe it, he would start telling stories about the things he saw around him.  Jesus saw heaven everywhere: a farmer sowing seed, a woman baking bread, a merchant buying pearls, a shepherd tending sheep, a woman sweeping her house out, birds that nest, seeds that grow, and flowers that bloom.  For Jesus, the question isn’t “where is heaven?”  For Jesus, the question is “where isn’t heaven?”  This is the kind of life that Jesus lived: a moment-to-moment awareness of the truth that within, behind, and beyond the apparently random facts of life there is, at the very heart of the universe, a “Love that will not let me go.”

“Believe the good news,” he said, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

This week is the second in a five week series of sermons on the elements of worship.  We’re looking at who, what, when, and where but also (most importantly) why we do what we do each week in church.  Last week, we talked about the Word of God, found in (but not mistaken for) the words of the scriptures, which forms a kind of central fulcrum around which the rest of our liturgy revolves.  This week, we’re talking about prayer.  In the coming weeks, we’ll cover service, sacrament, and relationship.

I began this week’s discussion on prayer by describing the kind of life that Jesus lived: a life of moment-to-moment spiritual awareness.  In doing this, I kind of started at the end.  This is the point to which we will return.  This moment-to-moment spiritual awareness, demonstrated and embodied in the life of Jesus, is the purpose of all prayer and the final destination of every praying person.

But before we get back to that central point: a few words about what prayer is not.  First, prayer is not magic.  There are many churches and organizations out there who teach that if you pray for something long enough, hard enough, or in a particular way, you will (or should) always get what you want.  Many prominent televangelists and proponents of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” have made use of this idea as a fund-raising strategy.  The most corrupt among them have willingly and knowingly manipulated people into giving up their money as a “seed of faith” in exchange for some sort of miracle.  A private investigation of one such organization during the 1990s found that the donations were being sent to a bank where the checks were deposited and prayer requests were simply thrown into the trash.

A further problem with the “prayer is magic” approach is how it deals with the inevitable question: “What happens when we don’t get what we pray for?”  This is not so big a deal when we’re talking about some trivial thing that the heart desires, but it becomes a big deal when we’re praying about things that really do matter: What happens when the cancer doesn’t go into remission?  What happens when the child isn’t found alive?  These are big questions that make a big problem for those who subscribe to the idea that prayer is magic.  Sadly, there are those in this group who answer this question by blaming the victim.  “Oh well,” they say, “I guess you just didn’t have enough faith.”  If you’ve ever had someone say that to you, let me be blunt and tell you that it’s nothing but a load of baloney.  It’s a lie from the pit of hell.  Don’t believe it.  There are many stories in the gospels of Jesus working miracles for people, but never once does he look an individual person in the eye and say, “Go away.  You don’t have enough faith.”  Don’t take my word for it, go and look it up for yourself.

In response to this obviously destructive idea that prayer is magic, many other folks have adopted the very modern notion that prayer isn’t actually anything at all.  They would say that prayer is a placebo.  For those who might not be familiar with that term, the Placebo Effect is an event that doctors have noticed during clinical trials of experimental medications.  When they’re testing a new drug, they run a test where half of the people are given the real medicine and the other half are given a sugar pill (i.e. placebo) that looks like the real thing but doesn’t actually do anything to your body.  Nobody knows which pill they’re getting.  What the doctors found is that the patients who received the placebo nevertheless showed signs of improvement.  The mind was tricked into believing that it was receiving a new medical treatment that would make the body feel better.  So strong was this mental expectation that the body responded by feeling better, even when there was no actual medicine involved.  This is known as the Placebo Effect.

Those who view prayer as a placebo see it in the same way.  They think that prayer is just a mental exercise that people undertake in order to make themselves feel better.  It would be foolish, they say, to think that God would intervene to make a difference in human circumstances.  Honestly, the idea that prayer is a placebo makes me just as uncomfortable as the idea that prayer is magic.  I have a hard time believing that this universe is a closed and mechanical system with nothing beyond itself.  I think that God is real, that God does care about our pain, and that God does make a difference in this world.  I feel stuck between unfounded idealism on the one hand and hard-nosed cynicism on the other.  I can’t claim to have the final answer to this conundrum, but I have a hunch that the reality of prayer is actually a mystery that somehow encompasses and yet transcends both of ends of the ideological spectrum.

The Presbyterian Book of Order defines prayer as “a conscious opening of the self to God.”  I really like that.  It reminds me of the first verse from our beloved hymn: “Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love; Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee, Opening to the sun above.”  While I do believe that prayer can and does make a tangible difference in this life and this world, I don’t see that as the reason why we pray.

Even though it’s become kind of a dirty word (even in church), I have to admit that I like the term religion.  It comes from a Latin word that means “to reconnect”.  Thanks to online tools like Facebook, people all over the world today are enjoying that feeling of reconnecting with old friends from days gone by.  It’s the same way with religious practices.  Through them, we find ways to reconnect with God, ourselves, our neighbors, and the universe as a whole.

Now, I should qualify that statement by saying that I don’t believe we are ever completely disconnected from God in an absolute sense.  The scriptures tell us that it is in God that we “live, move, and have our being,” that God is “above all, through all, and in all,” and that “from God, through God, and to God are all things.”  When we reconnect with God, we are reconnecting with that which is already nearer to every atom than its own nucleus and closer to every person than her own soul.  It would be more proper to say that through prayer and other religious practices, we are nurturing our conscious connection with God.  Prayer brings us to an awareness of the Reality in which we already live, move, and have our being.

There are many ways that we seek to nurture this conscious reconnection in our public worship.  First of all, there are those parts of our service that are explicitly referred to as prayer.  In our Call to Worship, we acknowledge God’s presence and invite God to work in us whatever needs to happen in order for us to become the kind of loving and compassionate people that God wants us to be.  In our prayer of Confession, we acknowledge our shortcomings and celebrate God’s undying and redeeming love.  Confession is not about guilt and fear.  Confession is about honesty and trust that God never gives ever up on us.  In the prayer for Illumination, as we talked about last week, we ask the Spirit of God to enlighten our hearts and minds so that we can hear, believe, and follow God’s Word.  In the prayers of the People, we lift up to God our specific needs and concerns, trusting that God is working in us and in the world to bring peace and wholeness to all.  In the prayer of Thanksgiving, we raise a voice of gratitude for all the goodness we see in the world around us and we dedicate our lives to cooperating with God’s work in the world.  Finally, we gather all our various prayers into one great prayer that Jesus taught his disciples: the Lord’s Prayer.  There is so much to be said here, but time grows short and the hour grows late.  I will leave most of that for another sermon on another day.  For now, I’ll simply say that this one prayer encompasses all the other forms of prayer that I have already mentioned.  We say it by rote week after week, but I encourage you, as an extended meditation exercise, to stop sometime and really think about what you are saying: “Our Father, who art in heaven: hallowed be thy name…”

Not all prayer involves words or speech.  Music itself is a form of prayer, even when it is purely instrumental.  The preludes, hymns, anthems, offertories, and postludes of our worship service are not provided for your entertainment.  They are prayers in themselves.  The beautiful arrangement of sound into organized tones called music is meant to guide you and me into and through the present moment to the eternal mystery in which it rests.  Can you resonate with the music of the spheres?  Can you imagine, during an organ solo, the life-giving harmonies of our delicately balanced solar system?  Music, as a form of prayer, leads us beyond ourselves to participate in a larger reality.  A theologian once said, “The one who sings prays twice.”

Prayer can also be undertaken in total silence.  No words are necessary.  Sitting quietly for an extended period of time and focusing on the unconscious rhythm of each God-given breath is a form of prayer.  This kind of prayer, called contemplative prayer, lets go of all doing in favor of just being with God in the present moment.

“Prayer is a conscious opening of the self to God.”  In its various forms, we reconnect with that which is deepest in us and the universe.  We move beyond just “knowing about God” through dogma and theology.  We come to “know God” in a direct and mystical sense.  Through the regular practice of prayer, our lives begin to look more like Jesus’ life: living in that moment-to-moment spiritual awareness of the Love in which we live, move, and have our being.

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