Three years ago, I reluctantly gave in to requests to preach on the subject of prayer and I devoted my sermons during the season of Epiphany to the subject of prayer. I have been asked to re-post those sermons. In the course of three years, my theology has continued to evolve. However, I have resisted the temptation to edit the sermons and so the manuscripts are what they are, an exploration of sorts. Here’s the Third sermon in the series. I shall repost the seven sermons in the series over the course of the Season of Epiphany.
Prayer #3 – Corporate Prayer, preached on Epiphany 3B, 2012 – listen to the sermon here
Readings: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; excerpts from St Thomas Aquinas’ God’s Nature, Mark 1:14-20 – Our worship began with the singing of the old song, I Come to the Garden Alone.
Before we set forth on the third sermon in this series, let’s take a brief look at where we have been. We began looking at what happens when we give up the image of God as a grand-puppeteer in the sky to whom we pray to. We moved beyond the notion that prayer is about us talking and God listening. We looked at a model of prayer that begins with us shutting up and listening, for the voice of God, which in Hebrew is called the Bat Cole, or daughter of a sound. Listening for the still, small voice of God, begs the question: “If I happen to hear this daughter of a sound, how do I know that it is God that’s doing the talking?” This question led us to look at the two streams of thought concerning the nature of God that flow through the religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The first way of looking at God, sees God as a super natural deity; a kind of person writ large, a super hero God capable of interfering and altering the course of human affairs. The second way of understanding God, is just as ancient, and just as biblical, has the fancy theological name “panentheism” which in the words of the Apostle Paul, sees God as “the ONE in whom we, live and move and have our being. Panentheism simply put means, everything is in God and God is in everything; the universe, all of creation is in God, and God permeates all of creation.
When it comes to prayer, we’ve all been trained to see God as a kind of super-hero-santa character who exists to respond to our prayers with either a yea or a nay, and if the answer is yea, then all is well, and if the answer is nay, then this super-hero-santa God is either responding negatively to our request because we haven’t prayed it properly, or this all-knowing supreme being is saying no for our own good, or this super-human-god is simply trying to teach us something. Sadly, for so many people in our day and age, unanswered prayers, especially those unanswered prayers about unmerited suffering, have lead so many of our contemporaries to conclude that this super-hero-stanta God is little more than a creation of our own making and therefore does not exist and so apart from those times when they are so desperate because there’s nothing left to try, they have for the most part given up on prayer.
The popularity of the super-hero God rises and falls upon the responses or lack of a response to our prayers. Panentheism takes us beyond worshipping the image of God that we have created and opens us to the reality of the force that lies at the very heart of creation; a force that lives and breathes in, with, and through us. When we move beyond seeing God as a super-person, to understanding God as that which permeates all that is, we are compelled to open ourselves to a power beyond our ability to name. In the presence of such a deity our prayers can seem hubris at best, ridiculously childlike, or even useless and so we are all too often reduced to a silence born out of frustration rather than intention. But however, we arrive at the silence, it is out of the silence that God comes to us and we hear the Bat Cole, the daughter of a sound, the still small voice of God. So we’ve come full circle and we can’t help but ask, how do we know that the sound we here is God?
As we struggle for an answer to this question, I’m going to try to take us on a journey that I hope will help us learn some of the skills we will need to test the voice of God. It’s a long journey, so we won’t get there with this sermon. After today we will spend four more Sundays on the subject of prayer; four more Sundays in which we will delve deeply into what it means for us as individuals to pray to a God that we understand to be the one in whom we live and breath and have our being. But before we tackle the subject of individual prayer, we’re going to look at corporate prayer.
What are we doing when we pray together? If we are in God and God is in us, what does it mean to get together as a community to pray? How do we pray? What do we expect, if anything to happen? Today we will look at corporate prayer, next Sunday we’ll delve into praying as individuals, then after a couple of Sundays we’ll include an exploration of the Lord’s prayer. Which will take us to the last Sunday of Epiphany, when we’ll arrive at the mountain-top for transfiguration and we’ll wander around the thin places before heading off into the wilderness for Lent, where even Jesus needed all his skill to determine which of the voices he was hearing was actually the voice of God.
Now for some of you beginning by exploring corporate prayer seem counter-intuitive. Most of us are more interested in your own individual prayer life than we are in the prayer-life we share as a community. But I am convinced that if we begin by looking at how our prayer-life together has changed as we’ve opened ourselves to seeing God as the One who permeates all of creation. When you think about it, our prayer-life begins when we are children with a form of corporate prayer, when an adult in our life teaches us to pray. Usually, we are taught to begin by asking God to bless, Mommy and Daddy, grandma and grandpa, our sisters and brothers, our aunts and uncles and whoever else we loved. Sometimes we’d pray for the boys and girls who were less fortunate than we are. Some of us were taught the words of the Lord’s Prayer. Some of us were taught that horror of horrors: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the lord my soul to keep. If I die before I wake, I pray the lord my soul to take.” I don’t think I understood what I was asking in that particular prayer, because if I did, I’d never have let my parents leave the room, because I don’t ever remember wanting God to appear in my room to take me away. Continue reading