Proper 12A 2017
St. Stephen’s, Oak Harbor
July 30 2017
For some several weeks now, we have been traveling alongside Paul’s Letter to the Romans. During that time our preaching attention has been given to some of the parables of Jesus as Matthew has remembered them. But it’s time now to learn from Paul, to learn from Paul about prayer and the constancy of God.
Martin Luther called Paul’s Letter to the Romans, “the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel.” [Preface, para. 1] What we have heard read to us this morning is perhaps the most powerful of all the things Paul has to tell us in this letter of his. It is a virtual catechism of the faith and overwhelmingly good news.
In our reading this morning, Paul begins, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
“…we do not know how to pray as we ought…”
Every Sunday we gather here for common prayer. And every time we gather on these Sundays, our first prayer is the same.
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name:
This is how our gathered prayer begins. This is where we stand. This prayer announces our reliance on the deep sighs of the Spirit, admitting that God will indeed search our hearts. We do not gather in order to talk God into something. No, rather we gather to make ourselves available, vulnerable to grace, knowing as Paul tells us, “all things work together for good for those who love God.” There is nothing pragmatic about it at all. We each know, we all know, that, no matter what we ask, we must always wait upon God.
For many of us, it is the gathered prayers of the Church that give us a vocabulary, a set of words upon which to rely in our own private prayers and devotion. The opening prayer, the prayer for the day, the Prayers of the People, the Confession, the Great Thanksgiving, our prayer after Communion, whatever special prayers we may offer—all these give us language, imagery and energy for whatever praying we may do in solitude or community or quiet, beyond this place.
It is also true, I suspect, that for some of us, beyond the gathered prayers of the Church, we struggle to find a time or a way or a will “to pray as we ought.” I am dependent on God and the prayers of the Church for whatever praying I may do beyond just now.
Truth be told, in the era when I was first ordained, some 50 years ago now, we ordained folks were expected to pray the daily office, morning prayer and evening prayer, every day. My “weakness,” as Paul puts it, was sufficient that I was unable to sustain this discipline, a source of some guilt that I managed to overcome over time.
Happily, however, also some years ago, having struggled with the discipline of regular, even daily prayer, with the help of God and Amy, I found a very graceful way forward. Every evening, before our evening meal, we offer intercessory prayer. Dependent on the deep sighing of the Spirit to stimulate not only our desire to pray but also our memories and our imaginations, we offer to God whatever has come to us that day. We offer our concerns for the world, especially those who suffer the torment of war, those known to us who are sick, and, of course, we offer thanks for the joys of the day.
We have a calendar that helps to prompt us, too. What an earlier generation would have called a “remembrancer.” Birthdays, anniversaries, death dates—they are all there for our remembrance. This past week we remembered two dear friends who died on adjoining days in 2008, while we were serving in another place. On the evenings in question, they and those who love them were lifted in the prayers of our house. We have confidence in our prayers as Paul so rightly reminds us, because the Spirit of God is the agent of our yearnings.
It is also possible and rewarding to pray without words, or with very few. Recently, in our Monday morning Bible study led so wonderfully by Tom Johnson, he told of a prayer practice followed at St. George’s Church in Leadville CO, where his daughter Amy and her family attend.
In the worship space, there is a table filled with sand. At the time of the Prayers of the People, those so moved go to the table and place a stone or candle in the sand, itself an offering of prayer, accompanied or not with words. As Tom told about this practice, I could almost feel its power and authenticity. It is also true for those of us who make the sign of the cross, it is at the very least, gestural prayer.
By some means and at some time prior to now, you have bound yourselves to God in Jesus Christ. In so doing, you have undertaken a faithful responsibility to abide in “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers.” This is the language from the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles as it is contained in the Baptismal Covenant in our Prayer Book. [Acts 2.42; BCP 304]
As necessary as we may find the practice of prayer, either the gathered prayers of the church, or private prayer or both, our prayerful activity is counted foolish by much of the world that surrounds us. That makes our praying, what we are doing right now, counter-cultural, not something some of us know much about! But it is true. We stand or kneel or sit in prayer and in so doing, stand over against the mechanics of social exchange that form our culture. This for that, expecting good value. Put the coin in the vending machine and out comes the soft drink. The mechanics of social exchange. I do something to cause something to happen. You know the pattern, the rhythm. This is not how we know that prayer “works.” In the final analysis, all our praying gets distilled to that potent phrase in the prayer Our Lord taught us, “your will be done.”
And in so doing, by bringing our heart and wills to God, we join ourselves to the good purposes of God, confident in God’s intent to accomplish good in all the world. We make ourselves vulnerable to the agency of God’s Spirit, that what we need and yearn for and pray for may come to pass.
Such praying also obligates us to align ourselves with our prayer and do whatever work those prayers require of us. If we pray for the sick in the parish and do not visit them, do not call or write them, then we are subverting the good intentions of our praying. Several weeks ago, I reminded you of the good counsel of St. Augustine of Hippo, “Pray as if everything depended on God; and work as if everything depended on you.” So it is.
In Paul’s letter this morning, he teaches us even further. He asks his Roman readers, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” It’s a wonderful rhetorical question, one intended to allow Paul to say what he knows so well to be true. In what he says in answer to his own question, we hear what must fuel your life and mine every day, every moment. Hear this, “…I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In my life, and for a very long time now, Paul’s confidence has made it possible for me to get out of bed every morning, to face or enjoy whatever today brings. I have appropriated into myself Paul’s confidence in the constancy of God, and I want so much for you to do the same.
If I were foolish enough to ask you what you think preaching is for, heaven only knows what answers I would get, so I’m not going to ask you. But I will tell you what I think it is for, why I and so many others invest themselves in this task. Preaching is for edification, edification. This is not education. This is edification. This means that, just this very minute and right here, it is my responsibility, with God’s help, to build you up, to edify you, to make your faith stronger, more durable, to strengthen you in your life in Christ. This being the case, I know of nothing I can offer you more edifying than Paul’s testimony here. Nothing “can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
On a regular basis, the Church reads portions of Psalm 139, the place on which Paul’s testimony stands this morning. The Psalmist wrote, “Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar…Where can I go then from your Spirit? Where can I flee form your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast.” [Ps. 1139.1,6-9]
My friends, this is life with God, the life we have chosen in Jesus. Even though God knows us as intimately as the Psalmist says, even though God knows us that well, God is still content to abide with us, inseparably, to our good and to the end. We have joined ourselves to God in Jesus Christ. Therefore, Dear Ones, pray as you are moved to pray and enjoy the love of God, constant and without measure.
Blessed be the Name of God