What good does it do me?

This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s, Berkeley, on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 18, 2018.

Collect: O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Recently l was talking with a parishioner, and the subject of prayer came up. “I learn the words,” he said, “But part of me also wonders, what good is this really supposed to do me?” I confess I sputtered a bit, because I normally operate from the presumption that prayer is an objective good in itself, valuable despite whatever benefit we might or might not derive from it. It doesn’t usually occur to me to ask “What good does it do me?”

I’m sure I answered with something unsatisfactory, and the conversation moved on. But I’ve been thinking ever since. Even if it is an objective good, apart from any personal benefit, there should be something to say about the good it does. One good place to start is the passage from Jeremiah this morning. “I will write my law on their hearts and on their mouths; and they shall not need to teach one another, saying, ‘Know the Lord, for they will all know me.’”

There is something about the repetition of words and phrases, which begins to sink into the mind and heart. It’s easier to feel loved when a loved one says “I love you,” on a regular, repeated basis. And when the going gets tough, those repeated affirmations become an internal backstop, a confidence which underlies whatever surface struggles or tensions we might face.

So it is with prayer. Words repeated over time enter the mind and heart and begin to undergird our daily reality with the promise and presence of God. When the going gets tough, and often when we least expect it, whatever prayers have sunk into our hearts resurface and work as guiding lights in the midst of chaos and uncertainty.

It reminds me of a story a father once told me about the first night his infant son was in the hospital. It was a sudden and unexpected emergency, and that first night, helpless, the father turned to prayer after a long time away from praying. He said he felt utterly stranded, he couldn’t think of a single word to say, or any way to start praying — just that he wanted to, and was devastated he couldn’t. But in that moment as he knelt in agony, without even words to offer, a childhood prayer came back to him which he remembered somehow from Sunday School. It was all he could offer, and yet in that moment it was enough; and as he said the words, a calm came over him that he never thought possible. From that moment on, he was convinced he had met God, and in a very powerful way he had.

We pray so that the words of our prayer might sink into our hearts and minds, and become second nature, a second language. But it doesn’t stop there. So often in life the things we adopt as second nature — the activities and hobbies where we spend our leisure — all become more than second nature. They come to shape our imaginations and define who we are. That’s clearest in a sacramental framework where a person ordained a priest really becomes a priest; or where married persons become something more together than the sum of their parts. But it’s also true in a smaller way in everyday habits and patterns. We introduce ourselves by our professions, our hobbies, our loyalties, our relationships. “I’m a teacher,” one person says, or think of all the cartoons and memes featuring some variation on, “Work at the firm pays the bills, but my life is fishing.” — or golf, or music, or whatever. We define ourselves by the second natures we adopt; and in doing so the second nature shapes and directs our primary nature.

Our whole lives long we are still becoming what we will grow up to be. For prayer to come as second nature to us is for it to shape our imagination, our powers of perception, until our primary nature is marked by openness to the presence and power of God. A life of prayer is a life of becoming more and more aware of the movement and mystery of God’s grace within and beyond whatever happiness or anxiety we face in any given moment. In this way, the words of our prayer and the choice to offer it become less like going to a river to sip water — it does nourish us and it does strengthen us — but more than that, it’s like getting in a boat and sailing downstream and out to sea. We move through the landscape from a completely different perspective, carried by the river at least as much as we navigate it ourselves, until it finally opens up onto a limitless horizon, and we look back at the land, our home, from the sea and see just how good and precious it is.

“In that day no one needs to teach one another saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” As God’s words enter our hearts, our hearts enter God’s. Far from a small enclosure, there is room there for the whole creation and all worlds that ever were or might ever be.

Which brings me to the last piece of good that prayer does for us: and that is, that it puts us in touch with God himself at work within us, just as he is at work in all life. Prayer is something that happens in us, something that God accomplishes within us, at least as much as it is something we say or offer ourselves. When we pray, “Our Father,” as Jesus taught us, we offer the same words Jesus himself offered to God, we step into his own prayer, into his Spirit, who prays his prayer within us. When we pray, we open ourselves to the movement of the Holy Spirit who gives us life, who is the ground of who we are and who we are meant to be. In short we are put in touch with the core of our inmost nature: made in the image of God, yet still unfolding in every moment of our lives.

In this way we can understand a little better then what Jesus means in today’s Gospel when he reiterates the same thing he said to Nicodemus last week: “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He makes from the cross his own final prayer, “Father into thy hands I commend my spirit.” — His final prayer, which is the heart of all prayer: the Son of God offering himself to God the Father, opening himself continually to the movement of the Holy Spirit, even in the face of death itself. There is a magnetism here which the whole creation is bound up in, everything that is created by God and depends on God for life; and when death itself is drawn into prayer in this way, whatever power it had to sever and break is ended. When we pray we are brought back to this moment, this eternal offering of the Son to the Father in the Holy Spirit, this unity of all creation in love.

What good does it do us? It may not be measurable by clinical or financial standards. But it does put us in touch with the whole reason and mystery and majesty of life. And the more we open ourselves to this mystery, the more wonder-filled and delighted we will be as persons; the more capable of weathering the storms and difficulties that inevitably come; the more bound up in one another our lives will become, and the more we will recognize ourselves as creatures of love whose lives are hid with Christ in God.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.