23rd Sunday after Pentecost
St. Michael & All Angels Church
Pastor Joe Britton
“Prayer: Weaving a Web of Relationship”
The tax collector, who was standing far off, would not even look up to heaven,
but … was saying, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner.’” (Luke 18)
I have been wanting for some time to spend some time thinking with you in a sermon about the subject of prayer, and especially about intercessory prayer (when we pray for the needs of the world, as we do each week here in church). Last week at our vestry meeting, one of the members mentioned that she had recently heard a sermon elsewhere on the idea of the “stewardship of prayer,” which piqued my interest; and then when I opened the gospel lesson for today, and found that it is one of Jesus’ specific teachings on prayer, the message was clear: today is the day.
The problem, of course, is that when we start to think about prayer, it quickly explodes into a topic that is full of difficult and even slightly illogical questions, doesn’t it? For instance, what do we claim to be doing when we pray? When we hold up someone’s physical or spiritual needs in prayer, are we trying to call God’s otherwise slightly distracted attention to a situation that God has overlooked? Or do we think that when we pray, we are trying to flag down the God who has (by the most recent reckoning) some 2 trillion galaxies to attend to in the universe, and so relies on our help to keep track of what’s going on here on Mother Earth? If we think of prayer that way, it starts to sound a bit preposterous, doesn’t it?
So rather than going down those rather unproductive paths, perhaps we should recall what Paul tells us in Romans, that while “we do not know what to pray for, the Spirit itself intercedes for us.” (Rom. 8:26) Paul wants to remind us here that prayer is not something we do for ourselves in a perhaps futile attempt to put something into words worthy of the divine. Nor is prayer a quixotic attempt to clear our mind sufficiently to be able to listen for God. But rather, prayer is a drawing back from the racing preoccupations with our own self, so that the Spirit who is already within us, may reach into our consciousness and draw us into God’s presence. Prayer, in other words, is allowing space for God to be within us. Prayer is experiencing ourselves to be caught up in a divine presence that is both infinitely larger than who we are, and yet at the same time deeply and intimately part of us.
Thought of in this way, prayer could be said to be the way in which we offer ourselves to be woven by the Spirit into the web of God’s own concern for the world—or to use a more contemporary word, to be made part of the network of interrelationship which God’s Spirit creates among us. When we pray for someone else, or for ourselves, we are offering to God our own words and thoughts and actions so that they may become the vehicle by which God’s Spirit is active in our lives, as well as the lives of those for whom we pray, in consort with all others who similarly pray. We thereby help to make the world porous to the Spirit, creating—along with the prayers of others—the opening through which the divine presence becomes manifest in our midst.
This, I think, is what the phrase, “the stewardship of prayer,” might mean. If stewardship is the way we put all things into their right and appropriate relationship with God—our relationships, our resources, even life itself—then prayer is one means by which we accomplish that. To pray for someone or something, is to place them through our attentiveness in relationship to God so that by the working of the Spirit within us, they may be renewed and encouraged. Prayer is thus something we do for and with one another as a community.
Jesus himself teaches us this value of prayer in today’s parable of the two men who went up to the temple to pray. One, a self-righteous Pharisee, looks with contempt upon the tax collector beside him, thanking God that he himself is not like that. But the tax collector, knowing his own fault, asks only for God’s mercy. In the case of the Pharisee, his prayer is not really prayer at all, for rather than trying to weave that web of relationship in which both he and the tax collector could be mutually caught up in the experience of God’s mercy, he can only think of creating distinction and separation between them. The tax collector, on the other hand, praying for nothing more than God’s mercy, communicates through his humility the very heart of the gospel: that God is mercy. It is the tax collector, rather than the Pharisee, whose prayer makes the world truly porous to the Spirit, for it is he who authentically offers himself through his prayer as a vehicle of grace.
There is an important lesson for us in the church here: we are knit together as a community not by the things that we do right (the Pharisee in today’s parable strictly observed the law, even contributing a generous tithe), but rather by a mutually held sense of our common dependence upon God’s mercy. In other words, we are bound together not by our virtues (valuable and admirable though they may be), but by a deeply acknowledged awareness of our shared humanity in God, which makes it impossible for us to draw lines of inclusion or exclusion of any sort: we too strongly know ourselves to be equally in need of mercy and love to do that. Rather, we pray—with and for one another—Lord, have mercy upon us.
The desert fathers and mothers of the 4th and 5th centuries had a keen sense of this truth. The story is told, for example, of the holy Abba Bessarion, who when a brother had been turned out of the church by his fellows because of his faults, got up and followed him out to make a point, saying “I too am a sinner.” And again it is told of another holy man, Abba Poemen, who when some brothers asked him whether they should wake up a brother who was falling asleep during divine worship, said, “As for me, when I see a brother who is falling asleep during [worship], I lay his head on my knees so that he may rest.” The point is that it is prayer that calls us into such gentleness with one another, for in prayer the Spirit within reaches through us to extend God’s own patient mercy to those around us. As I said, prayer is a conduit for God’s Spirit into the world.
Now, all of this may sound a bit esoteric, and you may wonder where you fit in. I know that there are many of you who have studied prayer a great deal, and appreciate in profound ways its depths and mysteries: just yesterday there were two groups here at church exploring both the contemplative and aesthetic ways of prayer. Yet there are others of us for whom prayer still feels quite awkward and strange, and who may not know even where to begin.
So let me close by offering one simple thought about prayer that will perhaps suggest how it may be accessible to each of us. As I said, prayer does not depend on our own eloquence or comfort in praying—it is, after all, the Spirit praying within us that is its true inspiration. In my experience, it is often enough to begin to pray, simply by asking God for a blessing, nothing more: “Bless me, God. Bless my family. Bless our home. Bless my aging parents. Bless my church, its clergy and people. Bless this country in its current state of confusion. Bless the poor. Bless this day, and bless our tomorrow.”
If we offer ourselves even in this simplest of ways, to be an instrument of God’s blessing to those and for that which we pray, who knows how the Spirit will weave together our own self-offering, with the prayers and concerns of untold others in order to make God transformatively present in the world? “Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.”
© Joseph Britton, 2016