Good evening! I bring you greetings from the State and Diocese of Texas and from St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston. I found out recently that at least one of my bishops, Jeff Fisher listens to the St. Thomas webcast, in his words, “religiously”, so I wanted to give him a little shout out as well. As I’m sure my fellow alums have commented, it is such a tremendous honor and joy to be preaching from this pulpit, and such a comfort to know that the boys will be hanging on my every word, even as I gave my complete and undivided attention to everyone who spoke from this holy space.
I attended the choir school from 1986-1990, and was taught to respect and obey the Holy Trinity, by which, of course, I mean John Andrew, Gerre Hancock and Gordon Clem. But all joking aside, I can’t tell you what this church, this community means to me. It’s no coincidence, I think, that I first felt a call to ordained ministry the summer after I graduated from the Choir School, and I often say that my time in the choir continues to be my greatest source of scripture memorization. So, if I were to say one thing to you today, it would be “thank you.” Thank you for the ways in which you served and loved me and my family, thank you for the opportunity to be part of a such a rich tradition, the opportunity to sing and serve and worship. But enough about me! Let ‘s Pray and talk about Jesus.
Remember what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:
“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
This is the moment at which Jesus teaches his disciples what has come to be known as the Lord’s prayer, and have you ever noticed how short it is? The entire prayer can be easily recited in under 30 seconds. It is short enough for even small children to memorize. How striking it is that when Jesus teaches us to pray, perhaps the most important instructions he could deliver, he is so brief.
Cleanliness may or may not be next to godliness, but it would seem that brevity is near to divinity.
And yet…the Apostle Paul tells the Romans to persevere in prayer. He tells the Corinthians and Colossians to devote themselves to prayer. He tells the Ephesians to pray in the Spirit at all times. And to the Thessalonians he says, most succinctly, pray without ceasing. The topic of my sermon this evening is the Cadence of Prayer, but when we hear Jesus’ and Paul’s teaching on the subject, we might be tempted to conclude that the message of the New Testament is somewhat muddled. So then…how shall we pray? Is there a way to reconcile brevity and constancy? What is the cadence of prayer?
The Christian author Ann Lamott once commented that the two best prayers she knows are: “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” She wrote a book on prayer entitled Help. Thanks. Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. And while Lamott may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I think she makes an important point, namely that prayer flows from life, it flows from need and joy and emotion. Prayer flows from the reality of our lived experiences. Or, as Father John Chapman, the early 20th century English Roman Catholic priest and spiritual director used to say, pray as you can, not as you can’t. In other words, pray in whatever manner you are able, rather than trying to conform to someone else’s idea of what prayer should look like. Find your own cadence, Father Chapman might say. My Seminary Dean, The Very Rev. Dr. Paul Zahl, speaking a bit more confrontationally, would often comment that the vast majority of prayers never leave the building, they never break through the roof of the church, because they don’t come from the heart, they aren’t the fruit of honesty. I think what Lamott and Chapman and Zahl are all trying to say is that the Cadence of Prayer is none other than the Cadence of Life. Prayer flows from our lived experience, from pain and joy, from desperation and thankfulness, from guilt and healing. The Cadence of Prayer is the Cadence of Life
And we see this in the Scriptures appointed for this evening. When one reads the psalms, the prayers of David, one is struck by their immediacy, their emotion, their groundedness and earthiness. Psalm 41: Lord, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you. Later on in this psalm, David writes, you have upheld me because of my integrity, but when he uses the word integrity, he doesn’t mean goodness or morality, but rather honesty. God hears David because David tells is like it is. David is honest about his sin, his wants, his needs. David bears his heart to His God. Or, listen to Solomon’s prayer in the reading from 1 Kings:
Regard your servant’s prayer and his plea, O LORD my God, heed the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; Hear the plea of your servant and of your people; hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.
Solomon is desperate for God’s ear. Listen to what God says in Revelation
To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
Which begs the question: how thirsty are our prayers?
When my oldest son was in kindergarten, I started a little bible study and prayer group for some of the dads at his school. I saw Mike walk in and I asked him how he was doing. He was very distressed with his business and not sure where to turn or what to do. I gave him some advice that he should pray and ask God for exactly what he wants, that he should pray for his wants and needs. Mike asked “Am I allowed to do that?” Jesus tells us to ask for what we want. He compares prayer to a widow pleading for justice, a man waking his neighbor in the middle of the night. Jesus basically tells us to be obnoxious with our requests, to wear God out with our prayers. When I saw Mike a few months later, I asked “How’s it going?” He said “Great! Ever since you told me I could pray for myself, I’ve been doing just that. The deal for the business fell through, but it’s actually been a good thing, because we just signed a big new client and things have really turned around.” Now I was thankful, as he was, that his career had taken a positive turn, but more than that, I sensed a peace in him, a gratitude, a joy, that I hadn’t seen before. Mike was no longer alone. He had a God, a Father, who cared about him, who wanted to hear his desires and fears, who wanted to answer his prayers.
There is a song from one of my son’s childhood books that goes:
What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer
Oh what peace we often forfeit, oh what needless pain we bear
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.
So then, the cadence of prayer is the cadence of life. We keep our prayers short, as Jesus said, because our needs and emotions are simple, and we pray without ceasing, as Paul says, because we never stop needing, never stop feeling.
But, R-J, you will say to me, I still struggle to pray. I can’t find the time, I can’t find the words, I’m too busy, too lazy, too forgetful, too fearful. Let me leave you with a word of profound hope from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.
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. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Did you hear that? Even when we don’t pray, don’t know what to pray or how to pray, the Spirit of God prays for us, intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And this is the final reason why the Cadence of Prayer is the Cadence of Life. Because, we, by the grace of God, are alive.
As Paul writes in Ephesians, we who were dead through our trespasses and sins, have been made alive together with Christ, by grace we have been saved. And because we are alive, God has put His Spirit in our hearts, to guide us, direct us, convict us, purify us, live in and through us.
By the Spirit and grace of God, our lives are themselves prayers, prayers that never cease.