This sermon was preached on July 24, 2016, at the Church of St. Michael and St. George. I had just been with our mission team in Nicaragua over the past week — our 17th annual trip to the same place. The Gospel was the episode where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer.
Collect: O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy, that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
Many of you know that I was away this past week, with our mission team in Nicaragua. They’re still there, they’ll be there for another week, but I was grateful for the chance to spend these few days with them, and to share with them the work that they’re doing. If you’ve never been on this mission trip, I strongly encourage you to consider going next year.
It’s one of the most unusual mission trips I’ve ever participated in. First of all, our work is directly with the people who live there. Lots of mission teams seem to operate on an industrial model these days, where there are lots of intermediaries between the team participants and the people they serve. Not so with our team: we worked directly with a local organization that runs a school and a clinic. Unlike most mission teams, who stay off-site and get bused in, we stayed in the same neighborhood where we worked. We saw the same people every day, and our team has been seeing these same people for close to twenty years now. The number of happy reunions I witnessed was remarkable: residents of the neighborhood greeted members of our team as if they were old friends, and indeed they were. Because I was new to this mission trip, our people were constantly telling me stories as we carried out our work: stories about this or that building that wasn’t there ten years ago, or this or that family and their news, or a local church congregation with whom we had been worshiping, or various projects they had completed, or funny stories they had experienced.
Most mission teams go to a place, complete the tasks assigned, take lots of pictures, buy lots of souvenirs, and go home, where they start planning for somewhere different next year. Not ours. I have to say I was extremely impressed not merely by the accumulation of work we’ve accomplished over the last 18 years, but even more by the quality of the relationships we have built and the way the Nejapa neighborhood of Managua has become another home for St. Michael and St. George.
Why do I say all this to begin my sermon? First because you all ought to know just what a wonderful thing this is that we do every year at CSMSG, and how unusual in its quality. And second, because it’s a perfect analogy to begin talking about today’s readings. This morning we’ve heard a fairly systematic series of readings on prayer, and the various forms it takes. Abraham negotiates with God about the fate of Sodom & Gomorrah. The Pslamist reflects thankfully on receiving the help and mercy he had asked for. Jesus teaches his disciples the “Our Father,” and continues with his famous admonition to ask, seek, and knock, for the door to be opened. Paul highlights the importance of being focused on Christ himself, and not on law or status, as we are incorporated into His own life.
These lessons certainly seem to cover the bases: Abraham petitions God, and teaches us that we can approach God with our requests. The Psalmist gives thanks, and teaches us to do the same. Jesus teaches us that prayer is something like a relationship between father and son, parents and children. And Paul teaches us to reflect theologically on what it all means. Yet all this still seems insufficient really to say what prayer is all about. Because prayer is so much more than simply an outline of holiness, more than an index to Christian living.
As a priest sometimes people come to me who are dissatisfied with their prayer life. As we talk, it usually becomes clear that they are making one of a few different possible mistakes. One of the most common is that people feel they ought to pray for things that sound holy: things like peace on earth, or to have more patience with their families, or to get better at budgeting for charitable causes. These are all fine, and certainly worth aiming at. But prayer is not a divinely-sanctioned wishing well. And there’s no use asking God for something you think sounds holy if you haven’t done the work of preparing yourself to receive it. Because chances are, you won’t be able to recognize it when it comes. And so people get disappointed.
So what’s the answer? I remember once being scandalized by something my medieval theology professor said during the course of a lecture in seminary. (Imagine, being scandalized by the Middle Ages! But it might scandalize you too.). He said, “You should always pray for what you want, even if what you want is to steal your neighbor’s wife.” How does this make any sense? Because in prayer you are not placing orders with a cosmic amazon.com. I’m sorry to disappoint you! Rather you are lifting up your desires to God, you are offering yourself as a desiring person. Naming them in prayer surrenders those desires, and yourself, to God, to let him do with you what he will. If you want to steal your neighbor’s wife, God knows it already, naming it in prayer won’t surprise him in the least. It will not make it happen, God does not work that way. Be honest in prayer, even and especially about those things which we might want to hide or plaster over with a more holy veneer.
This is the starting point, hiding nothing from God. This is the only way we can begin to know the depths of his mercy, the only way we can begin to see another way forward, the only way we can begin to desire the higher things. On this model, prayer is less about getting what you ask for to change your world, and more about asking in the first place so that God might change you. On this model, prayer is less a religious means to my personal ends, and more the medium in which God draws me closer to himself, the occasions by which he clarifies his image in me.
This is the kind of prayer to which all our lessons point this morning. In Genesis, Abraham’s prayer marks a transition point for him in his relationship with God. Before this, Abraham heard God’s call and obeyed, he offered sacrifice and made a covenant. But now God has visited his tent, they have haggled, and they have become friends. Jesus teaches the “Our Father” to his disciples, so that by their constant prayer, they might see they are no longer merely objects of grace, passive recipients of divine precept, but that they are God’s children now, whose life in the world will be radically different. Paul takes it a step even further, insisting that the whole thing is inescapably personal, as we abide in Christ himself, his body who is the Head.
Prayer is the place where we begin to see just what this means for the way we perceive the world and our own place in it. Prayer is the place where we begin to enjoy the communion of all God’s children one with another. Prayer is the place where we are changed more and more into the likeness of Christ, whose perfect act of prayer was to offer himself to his Father upon the cross.
So, what does all this have to do with our mission trip to Nicaragua? As with prayer, we might have started out thinking we were going to “help those in need,” or something similarly holy-sounding. But what I witnessed was a group of people who had been changed by the act of offering themselves in this way, who are there now, not because of any abstract desire to “help,” but because they have grown to love the people of Nejapa in a very real way: Norr, and Julio; Alex, Don Victor, and dozens of children, doctors, teachers, and laborers who work to make that place a home for so many.
Put another way, the object of our team’s love has become their home, in a very beautiful way, over many years, and the people of Nejapa their extended family. May you and I find prayer to be the same for us: the place where we learn to love God with every fiber of our being, and find ourselves at home in him, with all those who also say, “Our Father.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Amen.