Date: March 16, 2008
Scripture: Matthew 26:36-46
Sermon: This I Believe: Prayer
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells
Some years ago a child psychologist, Robert Coles, did a study asking children to draw God. Out of 293 drawings, all but 38 included a face. (Weavings:A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, May/June 1998, cited in a book review by Jan Johnson p.44) A face implies the potential for relating and communicating.
While there are many kinds of prayer and many ways to pray, prayer is about communication, relating, connecting with the divine transcendence, God, the Source of Life, universal oneness. in us, in the world, in others. Children, in their naiveté and wisdom portray God with a face because that is a way to signify communication and connection and mutuality. Prayer is about nurturing that connectedness with God, the soul, the life force of the universe that is in us, in all people, in all life, in the creation itself, however we want to name it.
In the story of Jesus and the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, we see Jesus engaged in prayer. He is cultivating communion with the Divine Source, God. He is pursuing the connection, relating to that deepest presence. Let’s look more closely at this story and what it teaches us about prayer.
Jesus is praying in dire circumstances. He knows the religious authorities want to arrest him and kill him. And he has come to Jerusalem, their stronghold, to celebrate the Passover. He will not let the threat to his life interfere with his religious observance. He will not let fear control him. So he is in Jerusalem knowing he will likely be killed. The end is near. Tensions are high. So Jesus takes his disciples away to pray.
Now people often offer what we call a 911 prayer. In a dire emergency they suddenly turn to the divine. While Jesus is facing dire circumstances, there is a difference here from a typical 911 prayer. Jesus is in this circumstance, not because of fate, coincidence, the conspiring of circumstances, stupidity, or poor judgment. This is not desperation from a hurricane, or a car accident, or a medical diagnosis. Jesus is in this situation facing death precisely because he has been praying and maintaining communion with the Divine and living out of that experience. And it has led him to this.
So Jesus turns to God in trust. We’ve come this far together; we need to go the rest of the way together. We don’t know where prayer and communion with the Spirit may lead us, but we know we are not alone. In the Gethsemane story we see the steady faithfulness of God sustaining Jesus contrasted with the disciples who are not dependable. A few verses earlier, they are pledging their loyalty. They will never betray, desert, deny, or abandon Jesus – even if it means death! And here they are later in the evening, unable to fulfill their commitment. I think we are told this not so much to convey the weakness of the human spirit, but to show the faithfulness, loyalty, and dependability of God. As the Psalmist says it: “God never slumbers or sleeps.” The Divine, the Holy, the Transcendent, the Life Source – however we are led to name and image God – is always on the job.
A little boy ended a lengthy prayer that included everyone he could think of by saying, “And dear God, take care of yourself. If anything happens to you we are all sunk.” (Funny Things Happen, Bernard Brunstring, p.67)
In the Gethsemane story, we see where prayer has led Jesus, the difficult path of living a God-inspired life and we see God’s ever present faithfulness. Jesus is turning to God in prayer because God is his life line and he knows it. There are no circumstances beyond God’s compassion and comfort.
In this story we also see that when Jesus prays there is total honesty, transparency, and disclosure. Jesus is grieving, heart-broken. He is experiencing desperation. He loves life! We see this full disclosure. Spare me. I don’t want to die. Jesus is completely honest.
We see this kind of blatant honesty.in the prayers of the Psalmist. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you keep your face from me? How long must I bear the pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? “(3:1-2) “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” (22: 1) “ Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants! “(90:13) “Do not be silent, O God.” (109:1)
Prayer is about honesty and full disclosure. We have nothing to fear from honesty in prayer. And we need hide nothing. We don’t have to maintain appearances. We don’t have to be strong for someone else. We don’t need to worry about appearing socially acceptable. We don’t need to hold back because we fear the consequences. We don’t need to temper our feelings. We don’t need to present things diplomatically to spare the feelings of another. Prayer is sacred space for unburdening our souls. For exposing our breaking hearts. For confessing our secrets, our hidden faults and failures. Our grief over the state of the world, our despair, our fear. Our ecstatic delight. Our deepest joy. In prayer we don’t have to hold anything back. We can be completely free: unplugged. In Gethsemane, even though God has brought Jesus to this point, Jesus is not afraid to say, I don’t want to do this. Prayer is a time for complete honesty, and while what is revealed or what surfaces, may not surprise God, it may surprise us. In the spiritual discipline of prayer, we may come to know ourselves more intimately and more deeply. Prayer is also a journey of self-awareness, self-discovery, and deeper relationship with the self. This is necessary to truly live by the basic ethical teachings of Christianity and all world religions: love your neighbor as yourself, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Self awareness is necessary to empower love of others. And prayer helps to cultivate and nurture self-awareness.
In the story of Jesus and the disciples in Gethsemane we see Jesus’ complete honesty about his feelings about his situation – Please God – no. But we also see his choice to fully submit to God’s will, to love, to the good, the right, the true. He holds nothing back. He will not rebel or defy or deny or abandon God. Again – in contrast to the disciples, Jesus expresses his intention, his desire to live the God-centered life, knowing the cost. Experiencing the fear and grief. But he will stay true. And trust the love that has brought him this far to see him through.
So prayer is about submission and surrender to a power larger than the self, beyond the self, and at the heart of the self. This acceptance frees us from the tyranny of the self. This is incredibly counter-cultural – because our culture is becoming more and more individualistic and self-centered. What’s in this for me? What will I get out of this? What works for me? We are even seeing this consumerist, individualistic attitude when it comes to the church. Instead of asking: Is this where God needs me to be? How can I serve here? Does this church enable me to bring joy and delight to God? People ask – what will this church do for me? How can this church save me? How does this church meet my needs? And to play into this mentality is to betray the heart of the Christian gospel. So when Jesus prays, “Your will be done,” and invites us to take that attitude in prayer, it is a way of connecting with a greater reality, a greater good, than the self alone. So prayer includes the balance of our honesty with trust and acceptance. The contemporary Christian spiritual teacher, Joan Chittister, reminds us, “God is not a vending machine full of trifles to fit the whims of the human race.” (The Illuminated Life p.93) And 20th century Christian teacher, C.S. Lewis reflects, “If God had granted all the silly prayers I have made in my life, where should I be now?” (quoted in Prayer Richard Foster p.182)
In the Gethsemane story we see Jesus go off alone with the disciples to a remote place to pray. Then he goes off by himself. There are many, many different ways to pray. We talked about prayer as relating and connecting. There are many ways to do this in our human relationships – sometimes when we’re talking with someone the words come spilling out. Sometimes we speak in quiet tones. Sometimes we yell. Sometimes we are simply with someone and no talking or words are needed. Sometimes we are formal and business like. Sometimes relaxed. A little girl was kneeling beside her bed saying the alphabet. Her father hearing her asked her when she finished, why she was saying the alphabet. She responded, “I gave God the letters and he makes them into words.” There have been studies done about the kinds of prayer preferred by different personality types. Life circumstances affect how we build prayer into our lives. Words. No words. Quiet. Prayers of praise, gratitude, confession, with others, alone, for ourselves, for others, for the world, listening, silence, all of these can be ways to pray. There is no magic formula. The important thing is building the relationship, making the connection with God intentionally.
None of us is so busy that we can’t incorporate prayer into our lives. In fact, the busier or more stressed we are, the more important it is to maintain the connection to the Source of Life, the power of love.
One Christian tradition includes the monastic schedule of daily prayers 6 times a day, another order for prayer three times a day, and prayer at meals, morning devotions and bedtime prayers. We can incorporate prayer into our daily activities. Every time you change a diaper, pray for the child and all children. Before you answer the phone, remind yourself that whoever is calling, even a telemarketer, is a child of God. As you drive to work, pray for all who are going to work, and all who need jobs but don’t have them, and for those who have completed their working life. When you go to the doctor, pray for all those who are sick and do not have access to medical care, including people here in the United States. When you go to the beach, pray for the well being of the seas and all life that the sea sustains. We make plans to spend time with friends, work, take care of business, attend to family, enjoy hobbies, sports, and entertainment, take care of property. We can also incorporate time for prayer into our lives if we choose to. We can do what we decide is important.
In this regard, let’s turn to the disciples in the Gethsemane story. Three times, Jesus asks his beloved, closest friends, who have just promised to hang in there with him, whatever happens, to pray with him. And three times, he finds them sleeping, not praying. Yes, they appear as lazy, reprobate slackers. But looking more deeply, Jesus is encouraging them to cultivate and nurture their connection with God. He knows that they, too, are going to be threatened and stressed and he is giving them the help they need to see them through. By asking them to pray, he is throwing them a lifeline. The connection, grounding, and hope that will save them. He is offering them the source of strength that will enable them to live through their fear and grief. And they reject it. When we neglect prayer, we are hurting ourselves. We are depriving ourselves. We are cutting ourselves off from our lifeline.
Now, when Jesus prays in Gethsemane, the disciples aren’t changed. God isn’t changed. The circumstances don’t change. But Jesus is changed. He begins agitated, grieving, and heartbroken. And he emerges bold, with courage and conviction, ready to take action. How does prayer work? We don’t know But we do know that it makes a difference ad has an impact. We see this in the Gethsemane story. And it has been scientifically studied. Hospital patients that are prayed for have a better recovery rate than those who are not prayed for. So prayer has an impact. Somehow, someway, prayer changes us, our attitudes, and our behaviors. Maintaining a connection, a relationship with God works – it has an effect on us and the world. Just as we grow, learn, are shaped and changed by our human relationships, so through prayer, relating with God, we are molded and shaped. The image of God within us is drawn out. We are different. And that changes the world.
When we pray, why does one person recover and another does not. We don’t know. Even when our prayers are of great concern and compassion for another, we may not see the results we hope for. We don’t know why. Why does the cancer of a lowlife scoundrel go into remission while our loved one dies? We don’t know. We’ll never know. These are mysteries.
While prayer may not directly change a circumstance as we would like, it will change us. It can help us be compassionate and loving in our care-giving. It can open our eyes to see the love and help being received. Prayer can give us empathy for others. It can heal our hearts torn open by loss and grief.
Elizabeth O’Connor, pastor and teacher at Church of the Savior in Washington, DC shares this story.
“One evening I was part of the volunteer staff of an overnight shelter for street women. It was a very cold night and the women began to arrive early in the evening. The rooms reserved for them were behind the sanctuary of the church and were used for other purposes during the day. Foam rubber mats were laid out over the entire area in one room. Many of the women chose a mat as soon as they arrived. Some had very little with them, though most of them had the bags that had given them the name of bag ladies. One carried her possessions in a child’s wagon, and another, more affluent, had hers piled dangerously high in a supermarket cart. The conversation was disconnected but the atmosphere was warm and peaceful. Each one was given a bowl of stew, bread and tea.
When morning came the peaceful atmosphere inside the shelter turned hostile. Distraught women – some of them old and sick – could not comprehend why they were once more being pushed out into the streets. We who had received them so warmly the night before were the very ones hurrying them along, benefactors so soon to become enemies.
In the narrow hall where the women were having breakfast, an old woman with a gentle face kneeled to pray. She was in the way of another woman who taunted her, ‘Get up women. God don’t hear your prayer.’ The praying woman did not respond and her taunter said again, ‘God don’t hear your prayer, woman. God don’t hear your prayer.’
I asked myself.’ Does God hear her prayer/’ Then I remembered. God is in me and where I am God is. The real question was, ‘Did I hear her prayer?’ What would it mean to hear her prayer?” (Elizabeth O’Connor, Cry Pain , Cry Hope )
As we began we mentioned how often children image God as a face. A face implies connection, relationship, communication, empathy. We are told that Jesus cried out from the cross the verse from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Did God not hear Jesus’ prayer? Was God not responding? Where was the face of God? It was not in the faces of Jesus’ beloved disciples. Maybe God wanted the disciples to be the face of love at Jesus’ crucifixion. But they didn’t make themselves available. They chose sleep over prayer.
When faced with suffering, injustice, pain, heartbreak, and death, may others see the loving face of God in us? That is my prayer. Amen