May 4, 2014

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Psalm 116, Matthew 6: 7-13

Introduction to the Scripture

A season of new life is upon us; these are days of resurrection. Today we begin a new sermon series which will take us through May and June. Every Sunday will feature one of our winning provocative proposals —you’ll recall these are the statements you voted on in March— this proposal will be paired with a simple action Jesus teaches his disciples in the light of the resurrection.

Today our series begins with the proposal that had the most votes. You’ll find it printed in your bulletin: “Church of Peace provides a rich variety of opportunities for spiritual growth involving fellowship, social, musical, and educational activities.” Certainly this statement reflects our interest in the programs offered at Church of Peace. But also in this statement you hear our commitment to growing spiritually, to deepening our faith.

Well, you know how it is. The heart of our church is our faith —a sentence so simple and true it seems silly to say out loud. But it isn’t silly, it is exactly right. And the action we remember today is how to pray. Something simple and true and exactly right.

Prayer is one of those things we know we should do. Go ahead and ask anybody who’s ever tried, prayer is really hard.

For one thing, we can easily get tangled up in all the shoulds that come with prayer. There is no shortage of shoulds. You have heard it said that you should never pray for yourself, or that you should definitely pray for yourself. You should ask for particular things to clarify your own direction of intention. You should not ask for things in your prayer, you should trust God to know what you need. You should pray every day even when you don’t feel like it. No don’t make it a chore. You should pray every time you feel the Spirit movin’ in your heart.

Just like what you eat, or when you exercise, or where you spend your money, prayer can be one more thing to make you feel guilty. Nobody needs one more thing to make you feel guilty.

Of course, we also bring our own shoulds to prayer. Maybe we think God should have the courtesy to respond promptly. Maybe if we just believe hard enough, and get our prayers lined up precisely, then our wish should be granted. We should see some sign of hope…

That anybody ever finds their way into prayer is nothing less than a miracle. Actually, every time anybody finds their way into prayer, it makes it all the more possible for the rest of us. We are always teaching each other how to pray.

Today both of our scriptures deal with this matter of how to pray. And both scriptures show the creative dynamic between prayer that is private and personal, kept safely in our hearts, and prayer that goes public.

Our passage from Matthew comes right on the heels of Jesus’ instructions: Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; they love to stand and pray… that they might be seen by others. When you pray, go into your room and shut the door… Well this sounds great! Many of us in this room come from a cultural background that prefers this style of prayer. Praying by yourself is one thing. Praying out loud in a  group? That is another matter entirely! Believe me, I get this. I really, really get this.

The truth is prayer is how we come before God —all vulnerable and exposed. Which means we see ourselves vulnerable and exposed. Which means we see God seeing us this way. Never underestimate the courage this requires! May we never underestimate the power in the tender act of prayer.

Now as we hear both scriptures, I invite you to listen for the rhythm between individual prayer and communal prayer, between prayer that stays private and prayer out loud. May God bless our reading, singing and hearing of this word.

Reflection on the Scripture: The Power of Prayer

Today we pray the Psalm that goes:

I love the LORD because he has heard my voice…

Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live.

The snares of death encompassed me;

the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;

I suffered distress and anguish.

Then I called on the name of the LORD,

“O LORD, I pray, save my life!” (Psalm 116: 1-4).

You can’t argue with that. This might not be your story, it might not be your prayer, but the Psalmist isn’t telling a lie. What she’s doing is giving her testimony. The singer of this Psalm stands before the community and bears witness to the power of prayer in her own life: When I was brought low, God saved me.

In verse seven, she addresses herself. She says, “Return, o my soul, to your rest, for the LORD has dealt bountifully with you.”

In the very next verse, she speaks to God: “You have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.” You can’t argue with that.

Most of this song is a personal promise proclaimed in the presence of all the people. Now in her singing, we hear the barriers between private prayer and public prayer start to crumble, the walls come tumblin’ down. Now talking about prayer turns into a prayer itself. My own personal prayer life spills into yours, and see we are always teaching each other how to pray.

It might be that you have your own testimony of prayer, your own story that could be sung in a song like this Psalm. Chances are, you have some kind of journey of prayer even if didn’t know it. Sometime maybe you will tell me the story of your experience with prayer. If you do this, it will bless my journey. I have a lot to learn from you.

I can tell you my own journey of prayer has been all over the place. Years and years ago,  I took my praying self far too seriously. It was as though I believed if I left anything out, God would not grant my request. My prayers were specific, and thorough and painfully long, which is perfectly fine if you’re drafting a legal contract, but it’s a pretty miserable way to spend an afternoon in the presence of God. One day I couldn’t do it anymore, and I gave up. The day I quit my prayer, I gave up my compulsion and gave into grace.

Then there were years in high school and college when I tried to give up praying all together. I decided I didn’t believe in it. I was disappointed in the church and disillusioned with all things religion. Prayer lost its authenticity, and I lost my faith, because faith goes and gets lost sometimes. It might happen to you.

But in my case, giving up didn’t work. Prayer came and found me. I could feel it in my fingers when I played the violin, prayer came out of my own mouth in songs we sang in music classes. Loving people found me and reached out at exactly the right moment with words that saved my life over and over again. That’s prayer for you. It will come and teach you things you didn’t know you need to learn until you do.

One of the things prayer teaches me is my size in the universe. I am bigger than the spider working on his web in the window sill, which means it’s up to me to see him and not kill him. I am so much smaller than Lake Michigan and all its stories hidden underwater. Prayer measures the distance between your sleepy body and the stars in the sky; it measures the closeness between you and God who hears your sigh.

Another thing prayer teaches me is this: it’s never too small, our prayer. Sometimes I call into the quiet, “You at least have to meet me half way!” I watch the news for ten minutes, and prayer comes, “God are you seeing this! Do you know your people are being tortured?” Against an execution gone wrong, a boat of refugees drowned in the ocean off of Lampedusa, when it’s little children who pay for our violence with their lives, and all I have to say is my prayer… What I have to say is my prayer.

When I go there, what happens is I meet up with you. That’s the power of prayer.

These days I pray like this. (Of course, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that I won’t pray like this forever. But I tell you that I pray for you, so you should know what I mean.) Every day I pray for about five people plus something that’s going on in the world, or a group of people. I come and set these prayers before God in the morning and at night, but I find that I keep thinking about the people all through the day, and so prayer comes to find me. I can’t hold more than five or six a day, I lose track. Some days I skip praying altogether. Some days it’s me — it’s me O Lord standin’ in the need of prayer. You need to find what works for you. When you do, let us know. We are always teaching each other how to pray.

Even when you don’t mean to. Even when we try to keep our prayers as secure as our account number and our password, as private as your pain. Your prayer doesn’t stay between you and God, it spills over the edges and crumbles the barriers. The closer you come to God, the closer we come to each other. And your prayer, our prayer, changes our church.

Your prayer, our prayer, changes this neighborhood. It changes how we feel about the people who live here. Prayer calls us right into the guilt we feel and the grace we need. You can imagine, if there were a shooting on 12th Street, we might decide to hold a vigil on the corner of 12th and 12th. We might stand right outside with candles and be a living presence of prayer and peace right here. But the good news is we don’t need a tragedy to call us to prayer.

When prayer is the heart of who we are as a church, the neighborhood will notice. When we renew our commitment to grow spiritually and deepen our faith, you should know it might change your life. It will change our church, I promise. Together we remember the LORD who delivers our soul from death, our eyes from tears, our feet from stumbling. Together we call on the name of the LORD like we can’t even help it. Friends, I thank you for your prayer. May we always keep teaching each other. Amen.

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