Focus on God is Prayer
A sermon based on John 17:20-26
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 8, 2016 *(07)
Jesus prays in our reading today so I thought I’d talk about prayer this morning. And I thought I’d start with another pastor’s experience. When his daughter was about three he tucked her into bed and asked what she would like to pray about. His little girl said “onions.” So as was the bedtime custom to pray as she requested, they prayed about . . . onions. The next day he asked her why she had wanted to pray about onions? She responded “Because you said in your sermon we should pray for things we don’t like.” 1.
Today’s Lectionary text is from the Gospel of John. The text is a portion of a long prayer that John tells us Jesus prayed just before he was betrayed. It’s an eloquent and wonderful prayer, what one commentary calls “The theological climax of the Fourth Gospel.” 3. Modern scholars tend to call this text “Jesus’ Farewell Discourse” so we consider it on Ascension Sunday, but traditionally it’s been called “Jesus’ high priestly prayer.” 2.
In the portion of the prayer we just heard Kris read Jesus prays that all Christians experience a complete oneness, so that the whole world may know that God sent Christ and that God loves all of us, even as God loves Jesus.
If you look on the United Church of Christ’s logo you’ll find words from this text, the logo quotes Jesus’ “That they may all be one.” It is there because, as the UCC website puts it, “We believe the UCC is called to be a united and uniting church.”
In 1957 the UCC came into existence as four main denominations of Protestantism merged to become one. Since then we have worked with other denominations to covenant to be in communion with them, including in the past few month the United Church of Canada.
It’s admirable that so many churches have worked over the years to make oneness a goal. It’s one of the things I like about the UCC, the seriousness with which it takes the Gospel calls toward love and reconciliation. But it is a sad truth that Protestants have as a whole not united to become one among ourselves, let alone with Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches. In short, Christianity still remains un-united. We are not one. One thing this means is Jesus’ prayer in our reading today has for 2,000 years remained unfulfilled.
We don’t talk about this in our churches, but if Jesus’ prayer did not get answered, what’s the point of our praying?
Another Gospel, the Book of Luke records Jesus instructions on prayer. In Chapter 11 Jesus is asked to teach his disciples to pray. He then outlines the Lords Prayer along the lines of what we pray every week in this church. After teaching that prayer to the disciples
[Jesus] said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’
I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. (Luke 11:1-13)
“The Lord’s Prayer” has at its core of the Gospel, Jesus’ message: honoring God, desiring God’s empire on earth, provision of basic needs, and forgiveness.
The post-Lord’s Prayer verses that I just read from Luke have “The Knock at Midnight” parable, perhaps best known in our generation from Martin Luther King’s sermon about it being midnight in America and African Americans were not going to stop knocking until the bread of justice in the form of civil rights was provided. Knock, knock, knock until what is needed comes, if not in kindness, then only because of persistence! God’s will being done through the pray-er’s insistence. And the civil rights movement Rev. King led proved the truth of the parable. It is why the UCC continues to pursue Jesus’ prayer in our text from John, that Christians all be one. We just keep knocking.
I want to focus on a something else we can learn from these prayer lessons we generally don’t discuss. Jesus prayed and it doesn’t appear he got an instant miracle answer. And the disciples, the first saints of the church, were worried about how to pray. These are the men and women who hung out with Jesus, and they needed help with prayer!
It may seem disconcerting to learn that Jesus did not instantly get what he prayed for and that his followers needed assistance with prayer, but there ought to be comfort too knowing prayer was not a for sure thing for the founders of our faith. In seminary as I interviewed for a pastoral internship I confessed to a very seasoned pastor that I felt inadequate with prayer, he not only hire me, but confessed that he also felt inadequate at prayer.
And it is not just Jesus’ disciples, and seminarians and clergy that worry about prayer, most Christians feel inadequate at praying. I’m guessing many of you would agree that prayer can be a difficult topic. Being asked to pray aloud can be downright frightening. When everyone is saying aloud something in a circle of prayer, as we await our turn many of us are not so much listening to others’ prayers, as we are thinking about what we will say to get it right.
Even something as common as our weekly request to hold others in our prayers can be intimidating. How can we take the two dozen or so folks on our weekly prayer list and pray for them, when we barely feel comfortable praying for our own needs and those of our family?
Since prayer can be confusing and uncomfortable, maybe even scary, I thought I’d share a few ideas, theories and theologies about it to help us.
Shortly after I was ordained and began working in church full time it dawned on me that really religion is all about prayer, about connecting, and communing with God– God out there, God down here in creation and God in others. The more I thought about it the more obvious it became that all we do as God’s partners in care of creation and of each other can be, and should be, prayer.
When Jesus answers the disciples request to be taught how to pray, he teaches the disciples words to a specific prayer, but, Jesus also teaches that those words are not the only words we can pray. Jesus notes that asking God anything, anything is prayer.
And if we think about it, in the Luke passage I read it’s not just words that Jesus teaches are prayer he includes non-verbal acts like persistence, searching and knocking as a part of prayer.
And in John he also asks for things that may not be instantly given, that may take time because humans are not God’s puppets but require education and change of heart, and even long growing periods–and so requests can seem to go unanswered for a long, long time.
Jesus, of course, is not alone in claiming prayer can be non-verbal or experiencing that prayers are not often instantly answered. The Bible includes many other acts of prayer: singing and dancing, even just being still and quiet are forms of prayer. In Psalm 46’s famous phrase we are told to “Be still, and know that I am God: I am exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” We can pray by being still, mediating. We can also pray – as impossible as it has seemed since the Psalm was first written– that one day God will be exalted among nations.
Other non-verbal prayer methods can be found in the Bible. Psalm 47 instructs “Clap your hands all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of Joy.” In Psalm 136 we are told to “[G]ive thanks to the Lord, for [God] is good, for [God’s] steadfast love endures for ever.” In Psalm 147 we are told “Praise the Lord! How good it is to sing praises to our God; for [God] is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.’ And listen again to all the different ways that our invocation, Psalm 150, describes how we can pray:
Praise the Lord! Praise God in [the] sanctuary; praise [God] in [the] mighty firmament! Praise [God] for [God’s] mighty deeds; praise [God] according to [God’s] surpassing greatness! Praise [God] with trumpet sound; praise [God] with lute and harp! Praise [God] with tambourine and dance; praise [God] with strings and pipe! Praise [God] with clanging cymbals; praise [God] with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!
Biblically prayer then is not just talking to God and petitioning requests. It’s any communication or expression of thoughts or feelings with God. It can be our desires and hopes, and it ought to include them no matter how futile the immediate granting might seem.
The author of the book of James succinctly states what happens when we pray. Chapter 4, verse 8 reads: “Draw near to God and [God] will draw near to you.” . . . Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you. Remarkably we are the ones with the power to get closer to God. We control how close we get to God! If we draw ourselves near to God, the very source of the universe, of life and love, is near to us. And note it doesn’t matter what we say so much as that we draw near to God.
Why is that? How could that be? Well, we live and move and have our being in God. God is ever-present soaking all of creation and if we just focus on God . . . God’s there. God’s here.
If I reach out and just rub the pretty wood on this pulpit and focus on God, like a genie God rises out, not because I made God appear in the wood, but because I took the time to sense God’s presence there. That’s why we come to church. It is a place and a time developed to help us focus on God. Just walking the door to church service is prayerful if we are hear to draw near to God. If we touch, or see, or say, or feel anything in order to sense God, we will find God’s presence in that thing in that moment! We will be drawn nearer to God and God is, then, felt near to us.
The power of prayer, whether it is touching, seeing, feeling, talking, singing, dancing, walking, thinking, worshiping or just sitting in quiet solitude, the power of such prayer, is drawing ourselves to God–who is everywhere, all the time. That God is everywhere all the time not only means that we are sponges existing and soaked in what is a great ocean of God, but it also means that all of creation is connected by that very God-ness.
No human quite knows how, but, when we focus our prayers on the God-ness in others even miles and miles away we not only draw nearer to God in that prayer, but, we seem to draw them nearer to God as well. It’s an inter-galactic knock on door of the cosmos to get the presence of God some attention. We must knock, knock, knock persistently, NOT to get God’s attention, but to get us humans up and paying attention to God’s ever present presence.
To use another biblical metaphor, Paul refers to the Body of Christ as being a made up by the conglomeration of all of us in the Church. I like that image. When parts of a body are wounded, the wound knocks with pain until it has the other cells and body parts’ attention. The cells communicate and rally round to tend to the wound and the result can be healing. Conversely when a part of the body experiences pleasure the body is awaken with that good news and as a whole rejoices.
This is a good metaphor for how we live and move and have our being IN CHRIST! Being in Christ’s body necessarily means that Christ is always, always with us–because we are in Christ. Our prayers are signals to the rest of the Body of our needs and joys. More importantly they remind us that we are not only a part of the Body of Christ, but also make us aware that Christ, the very incarnation of the God of love, is what we exist in. And we are electrified by consciously making that connection, we are awaken to God’s presence with us.
Prayer is turning to sense God wherever we are. To bring our focus and other’s focus on that Sacred presence. Henri Nouwen, one of the great spiritual writers of the 20th Century, put it like this:
Prayer leads you to see new paths and to hear new melodies in the air. Prayer is the breath of your life which gives you freedom to go and to stay where you wish and to find the many signs which point out the way to a new land. Praying is not simply some necessary compartment in the daily life schedule of a Christian or a source of support in the time of need, nor is it restricted to Sunday mornings or meal times. Praying is living. It is eating and drinking, action and rest, teaching and learning, playing and working. Praying pervades every aspect of our lives. It is the unceasing recognition that God is wherever we are, always inviting us to come closer and to celebrate the divine gift of being alive. 4
Prayer does not have to be difficult or uncomfortable. Prayer is about focusing on God. It is anything we do that focuses on God. If we pick up the bulletin and just turn to the prayer list thinking about God, that is prayer.
If we look at the names then or later and say something as simple “God let your healing presence be experienced by these brothers and sisters that is prayer too.” If we hold the list up and say “God let your healing and comforting presence be felt by (read the list) that is prayer as well.
This can be done with any list of prayers.
The more we pray the better. The more things we do as prayer the better. But even the smallest shortest prayer matters. Any turn toward God, any focus on God draws us to God and God to us. Prayer is swapping thoughts or feelings or senses with God. We can pray by talking, dancing, singing, drawing, playing music, thinking, worshiping, walking, even by just being quiet.
It’s prayer if we do it and mean to be drawn to God. And the cool thing is the more we pray, the more we knock, knock, knock, the more the Empire of God enters the world.
Prayer is about focusing on God. Who is here and now. Always. Everywhere.
May our lives be prayer.
2 NIB p 787
4.Nouwen, Henri, The Only Necessary Thing, Crossroads Publishing Co., (1999), p. 40