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.
We begin our prayer life together with someone we love teaching us how to prayer. Those early corporate prayers shape and mold the prayers we learn to prayer in church. “Dear God, let me tell you the problem, so did you hear that God, now God if you would only do thus and so, the problem would be solved and we could all live happily ever after, and by the way, if we’re happy we will be much better able to worship you, so come on God what do you say?” Where I come from, they call people like me, clergy that is, we are called “God-botherers”. I am a professional “god-botherer”, I’ve been bothering God for years and I must confess that most of what passes for prayer in the church is just a prettied up version of the prayer I just described. “Dear God, listen to us and we’ll tell you what is wrong, and then we’ll tell you what to do about it, and we’ll through in a thank-you, and we’ll blow some smoke, by calling you all sorts of wonderful names, and after we’ve done our best to manipulate you with our pretty words, we’ll wait for you to answer us.”
Now that kind of prayer works well if you understand God as so sort of grand puppeteer in the sky who possesses all sorts of super-powers and after consulting His grand-plan, will decide just how best to answer our endless requests. But when you move beyond the idolatry of believing that our images of God can even begin to capture the reality of God, this kind of prayer only serves to re-enforce our idolatry. Our prayer-life together becomes a building block for the pedestal upon which we place the idol we have created to worship as our god, rather than a means of experiencing the reality of the One who lies as the very heart of creation; the One who lives and breathes in with and through all that is, the One who dwells with us, the One who lives in us. So, how are we supposed to pray to a god like that?
Sadly, much of our life together in church has been spent praying to God, up there, or out there, and we’ve been pretty much content to do most of the talking. And while this kind of prayer to the super-human deity can provide us with some comfort, it all too often fails to help us experience an encounter with the Creator of all that is and ever shall be. Judging by the empty churches, the dying churches, and the churches that have closed their doors, this kind of prayer has left a good many of the prayers leaving the church in search of spiritual awakening out there in creation.
But rather than delving into a long exploration of what’s wrong with prayer in the church, let’s look at how we might move from this rather primitive style of pray, toward a deeper understanding that may leave us better equipped to experience together an encounter with the divine reality that we call God.
I suggested when we began that we do far too much talking and not enough listening when it comes to prayer. So, as we pray together we need to be collectively listening for the voice of God.
Our liturgies are designed to bring the Word of God too us. We sing hymns that are laced with the Word of God that we find in the Scriptures, we hear readings, from the scriptures themselves, preachers are called upon to bring the Word of God in the form of sermons, through which the voice of God is expected to speak. We re-enact the Word of God in the sacraments of baptism and communion; and all the while we prayer. If we are blessed, the liturgy can open us to an image of God that is beyond our ability to express. Music, scriptures, sermons, sacraments can open us, in various and wondrous ways, to God who is beyond words. But all too often, the model we use to pray together harkens back to an exclusive image of God that is for the most part, the super-natural, super-person in the sky, who is just waiting for us to manipulate Him to do our bidding.
So, what are we to do? Is it even possible for us to pray together without relying on the super-hero-god? I believe that it is not only possible, I believe that the power of prayer to effect change in the world is expanded when we gather together and open ourselves to the power of the One who dwells among us. We begin first and foremost in the posture of the listener. Silence, and space to breathe, to connect to One who dwells among us, is crucial. It is also counter cultural. We are not good at silence. We fill our lives with noise. We are so accustomed to noise that we tend to fill our worship with as much noise as possible. We want our worship to be lively, entertaining and we call that liveliness and entertainment, “uplifting” and it makes us happy, clappy, people, who are ready to meet the world with determination. So, we have to work at silence and so it makes us uncomfortable. We’re not used to listening together unless someone is performing in front of us. Besides, we’ve limited our worship lives to an hour on Sunday morning, so the worship leaders had better get on with it, cause we’ve got places to go and people to see. If God is going to show up, God had better make it snappy! So, we fill the hour with words, in the hope that we will encounter the Word. Fortunately, for us, the Word is a powerful entity who can break through even our best efforts to thwart the Word.
From time to time, we actually are able to hear the Word amongst the words and when we do it is so powerful that we are willing to return Sunday after Sunday hoping that we might just meet again.
But how do we know that the Word, the Voice that we hear in worship is actually the Word or Voice of God? Maybe it’s just us projecting what we want to hear into the worship and then choosing to call it the Voice of God? Maybe it’s just the preacher’s misguided or perverted idea about how we should act in the world? Maybe it’s just a sentimental hymn that makes me feel God so I’ve decided that it must come from God? Maybe I’m just tired, weary, and worn, so I’m willing to hear any Good News as the Word of God? Maybe it’s the same old words we’ve been hearing for generations so it must be the Word of God? Maybe its an idea that totally blows all my preconceived notions out of the water and I makes me see things in an entirely new way, so surely it must be that God is trying to tell me something? Or maybe I just want it all to be true so that I can stop thinking so much and just relax in the ever-loving arms of Jesus? Or maybe my life is so terrible that I just want to escape into the comforting words about God that help me not to be so afraid? Whatever our reason for believing that we’ve heard God, how do we know that the voice we hear is actually God?
I believe that the best way to test the voice of God is through the community. Together we will struggle to determine what is and isn’t the voice of God. Our ancestors knew this. It’s always struck me as remarkable that the very name of God’s people Israel means one who struggles with or wrestles with God. It is in the community of God that even our individual audiences with God can be wrestled with. The community will help us to struggle with our questions about what we have heard, but not just any community. For just as the Word must be wrestled with, so too must the community.
The true test of a community’s ability to wrestle with the Word is compassion. If a community is compassionate then that community will be about the work of creating justice in the world. So, we come together as a community to wrestle with the Word of God to determine what is and isn’t emanating from the Voice of God and the test of our community is our compassion because compassion leads to justice. Confronted by the Word of God, disturbed by the Voice of God, we wrestle with the Word in community with one another.
Prayer is our response to the Word.
Prayer is our struggle to comprehend the Word.
Prayer is our attempt to remain open to the Word.
Prayer is everything we do to respond with compassion to the Word.
Prayer is not the words we say, but the life we live in response to our encounters with the Divine.
So, while prayer is not just the words we say, it is also the words we say in response to our encounters with the divine. So, when we pray we begin by opening ourselves to the encounter with the Creator of all that is and ever shall be, the Force that lies at the heart of all creation, the One who lives and breathes in with and through us. Prayer is a kind of awakening to that which is beyond our knowing. Prayer is also an awakening of that which is beyond our knowing; an awakening of the Divine that lives in us; a raising to consciousness the God who dwells in us.
So, when we gather to pray for peace, we awaken our divine selves to be peacemakers. When we pray for our loved ones, we are opening ourselves to be the face of God for our loved ones. When we pray for healing we are opening ourselves to be the healing balm for the wounds of our broken world. When we ask for a blessing we are opening ourselves and our community to be the blessing we seek.
God dwells among us and causes us to pray and our prayer evokes compassion in our community and that compassion compels us to move our prayers from words into actions, so that we become co-creators with God, companions in the ongoing work of creation. In prayer, compassionate communities become the Body of Christ in the world, through whom God, the one who dwells in with and through us, tends to the needs of creation.
I’ve been talking for a long time. I’m going to be quiet and let you respond to what you’ve heard.
Andrew: Well it seems so apt. Here we are in Epiphany that when we have an epiphany, it’s always God. When we have those moments that we just go, “Oh my goodness!” and anything is true and it shines a light, that it’s always God.
Dawn: I think that in this day and age we have the sense that churches aren’t all that important, that communities aren’t all that important. We have self-help books. We can study the bible. We can pray alone. I think trying to determine and discern whether that epiphany is of God relies on community with one another. It also calls us into a kind of responsibility with one another for discerning, for challenging one another, for saying, “Wait a minute. I don’t think you’re hearing the voice of God. I think you’re off on your own little trip there. Come back down here.”
And how do we test the health of the community? Is it compassionate?
How do we know whether a community is compassionate or not? Compassion comes from this beautiful word…it’s why I don’t use the word “love”….someone said, “Why don’t you just use the word “love?” I think the word compassion is fiercer than the word love. Compassion comes from a Hebrew phrase that means “womb-like” and God is described as compassionate, womb-like. Those of you who have given birth are always talking about the kind of fierce mother-love; you know that kind of connected. Compassion means that we are fiercely loving the world, the world that God loves. And how could we not be seeking justice for that which we love? It calls us out of our private prayer and into our lives together as the people of God.
Next week we are going to focus on individual prayer, but we will come back to corporate prayer before we head off into the wilderness of Lent. In the meantime, I want you to thing back to the first prayers you were taught. Those prayers where you asked God to bless Mommy and Daddy, and all the other people in your lives. Those prayers awakened you to the Love that lives in you. Your desire for God to bless Mommy and Daddy is an expression of your own desire to love and be loved. When we gather together as the Body of Christ our prayers for the world we love are an expression of our desire to love and be loved. So, as we call to mind our concerns for the world, let us remember that we are Christ’s Body and it is in, with, and through us that God’s compassion for the world will create justice. Let it be so! Amen.