Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Prayer - Proper 12C

24 July 2016
Proper 12C
My cousin has a two year old named Connor. In my family, currently, stories about Connor are ubiquitous. That's almost the only thing my Grandmother will talk about right now. Connor. when I was visiting her a couple of weeks ago, she told me stories about how seriously Connor takes prayer time. He always makes sure everyone is ready for prayer before dinner and he prays every day before bed. My Grandmother was talking to him one time and asked him if he had prayed for her the night before. The answer came back, “No.” My grandma was a bit surprised by this of course, and she asked him, “Do you ever pray for me?” “Yes.” He said. My grandmother was appeased, she told me, “Well, at least he is honest about his prayers.”
Honest prayers... are we praying honest prayers? Do we pray for people when we say we will? I have a system of writing people name's down in a special notebook of mine so that I cover everyone I say I will pray for. Though occasionally I do have to admit, I forget. As a community, how have we been praying together? Have we been covering all aspects of our lives? And the world?
Sometimes prayer seems so useless, so boring, so confusing. 
Jesus was seen to be praying all the time. I bet his disciples thought he had some kind of special trick up his sleeve. Of course, there was also the rival group, John's disciples, that had been given a specific way to pray (though, we don't know what John taught his disciples, we aren't given any more information it). But I can totally understand why the disciples asked Jesus the question. Perhaps they thought what they were doing for prayer just wasn't working. 
Jesus gives the disciples what we call the Lord's Prayer. His prayer is pretty specific about a few things and we can be grateful that the Lord's prayer caught on and came down through the tradition. This is not the only time Jesus teaches his disciples about how to pray. We have the comparisons with the Pharisees at other times in the gospels. But in this prayer, Jesus emphasizes a few aspects of a relationship with God that is so important. He pulls God close and personalizes him, God is not an enemy to be feared. God is not an abusive parent to be feared. We can be telling our needs to God day and night, even at midnight, knowing that God is always there for us. He reminds us to put something other than ourselves first, God's kingdom. He teaches us to be grateful for our daily sustenance, in the form of bread or whatever else it may be. “Bread” stands in for any of our needs: a job, our health, good relationships, peace. He teaches us to be mindful of forgiveness, not just that others should forgive us, but that we need to work on forgiving others. He teaches us to ask for protection from evil, from temptation, trial, and tribulation. Though, in many ages, this has been understood in more corporeal forms, embodied demons and spirits, we definitely still have evil walking around among us. 
The Lord’s prayer is a sign and symbol, a prayer and a cry, it means so many things. Alienation, destruction, love, belonging, praise, confusion, excitement, joy, sorrow, these are all things we experience in our daily lives, and all these things come out in the Lord's prayer. I once had a conversation with a teacher about the Lord’s prayer. She said that she didn’t understand why the Episcopal church said the same things over and over again. “Yes,” she said, “we learn them, the Lord's prayer, the Nicene Creed, and other such prayers by rote, we teach them to the children, but the Book of Common Prayer doesn't teach about them in any other way, it doesn't tell us what each line means.” I said, “That’s exactly why we say them over and over again. You can’t make a person grapple with something and take it on themselves unless you put it in their face over and over again. For us to learn what each line means, we have to grapple with it ourselves and know what it means for us. The hope is that someday the children will realize they have no idea what they are saying and will wrestle with it, and then they will have really learned the prayer.” 
Learning how to pray an honest prayer takes a lot of time and effort. But having that kind of relationship with God is extremely important. Of course, the Lord's prayer is not the only way to talk to God. We teach ourselves and our kids this form, so that they always have something to fall back on, even when they feel like they have no words to say. 
Prayer is primarily a time to learn. When all we get back from our prayer is silence we think God is not answering. However, the first language of God is silence. God’s voice is the sound of sheer silence, if you remember the story of Elijah from a few weeks ago. (1 Kings 19:12). We also can learn to speak that language, but we have to listen to that silence. And that can be really really hard to do. In our world today, we have so many voices trying to drown each other out, we have so much noise and busyness. It may seem funny, but one thing I have learned is that if I need help with something, even if it is prayer, to offer up a short prayer for that thing.  If silence is a hard thing to listen to, ask God for help with listening to and being okay with silence. What I have noticed in my own life is that I ask God to help me with my prayers, at some point, I have some kind of epiphany. Either I realize that I've been praying amiss or that I already got the answer and missed it or I learn something new about myself. So, if worry is constant companion, ask God for help with worry. Or whatever it is.
Jesus goes on in this gospel passage with a comparison between God and other people, and where other people will only go so far, God will go much further for us. God created us and he loves so much. Ask and it will be given you. 
Up until now, we each have been praying for our community, for the transition and for the start of new ministry together. (And please, keep that up! We aren't quite through transitioning yet!) But now as we start setting our sights on what may be next, we need to pray for our wider community, for Franklin, for where we can come alongside the Holy Spirit already at work in the world and join with it. I have seen with my own eyes the prayers you are answering with the good work y'all have already been doing through your support of the Shepherd's Green Food Pantry and the Emmaus Haven Shelter. I have heard stories of the good work at ABC Life Center. I have begun to see a vision of how St. John's is working and will continue towards growing and deepening in its relationship with God and the community of Franklin. The workings of prayer will not only share with us where God is at work, but will also change the world. Not necessarily in visible forms right away. Sometimes it is a slow process of learning and growing and eventually you realize what a difference all those prayers made. In my own life, I have seen the power of prayer in my growth as a person and a priest. But I am not done yet, and neither is anyone else in this room. There is always more to be learned and changed through prayer. We want to think of changing the world and building the kingdom of God in large ways, but from my experience, it is the smaller ways that end up making the most difference. Jesus teaches all of us that is it much more than just the words that we say when we pray, there are no magic spells or anything. Jesus says it is much simpler. He says, ask. Ask and listen. Knock, take the risk. Open yourself up to God. Be in an honest, prayerful relationship with God. And then great things will happen.