Prayer Is Any Focus on God – August 21

A sermon based on: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
given at Mount Vernon, August 21, 2022 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Herb was at revival and decided to go up to the altar when the preacher asked anyone with needs to come up and be prayed over. When it was his turn the preacher asked Herb “My son, what would you like me to pray about for you?” Herb said, “Preacher, I need you to pray for my hearing.” The preacher put his fingers in each of Herb’s ears and prayed for a long while. When he finally finished he removed his fingers stood back a ways, looked at Herb and slowly asked: “How is your hearing now my son?” Herb said, “I don’t know, it’s not scheduled until Wednesday”

Last month we put a note in the mail and in the newsletter about prayer. The following Sunday I preached about the prayer that Jesus taught– The Lord’s Prayer– and how it connected us to God and was a good summary of Jesus’ teachings and call to us. This morning we are going to consider prayer again, but in the broader sense, along the lines of note that went out, and the new brochure we have in the entry hall.

Prayer is one of the things all of us participate in one way or another on our journey as Christians. Ironically prayer also seems to be one of the most misunderstood practices in the church, and one that seems to intimidate folks. We worry about what to say and whether we need to pray publicly so people know we are Christians. Jesus tried to make it easier giving us the Lord’s Prayer in case we want words and words fail us. But words are not the only way to pray. Prayers are interactions with God. Our prayers need not be words and need not be perfect
They also should not be thought of as a form of, or as a need to publicly display piety. As we heard in the reading Jesus is not too keen on his followers intentionally showing off their faith with fancy words meant to that impress others in public. Most of us tend to think of prayer as speaking to God with words said aloud or words thought silently in our heads. But prayer includes more than making petitions or having a chat with God. Talking to God is only one way to pray, it is a wonderful way, but it is not the only way.

The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms begins its short definition of prayer in this way: “Prayer from Lat[in] precari to ‘entreat.’ Human APPROACH to God and addressing God in praise and adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication and intercession. A consciousness of God’s presence, love, direction, and grace may be experienced.” Prayer can actually be understood as anything we do to approach God, anything that makes us conscious of God, indeed the English word “entreat” that prayer is derived from has an archaic meaning of not just pleading, but also to behave toward and to deal with. Of course, to have “consciousness of God” is to be behaving toward and dealing with God.

On today’s reading the New Interpreter’s Bible commentator reflects on prayer as consciousness of God in this way:
“Prayer is theology; theology is prayer. Karl Barth rightly affirmed. ‘The first and basic act of theological work is prayer.” Prayer is a theological act, the fundamental theological act. What one prays for simultaneously shapes and expresses one’s theology . . .
It is less often seen that theology is prayer. Thus, Barth’s dictum . . . is misunderstood if one takes it as piously recommending that one have a moment’s prayer before beginning theological work. Barth’s point (I think Matthew would agree) is that theological work itself, struggling to discern the contemporary meaning of God’s revelatory self-disclosure, even when theological work struggles to affirm that there has been a divine revelatory act or that the God purported to have acted in Christ is truly real– such theological struggle is itself prayer, wrestling with the angel until the blessing comes, even if one goes limping away. The scribal Matthew comes from the same rabbinic milieu that generated the dictum “An hour of study is in the eyes of the Holy One, blessed be He, as an hour of prayer.” 2

This idea that prayer is more than just talking to God has deep roots. We can hear Jesus hint at it in our reading from Matthew. But we can also hear it even stronger in Luke 11 where the disciples see Jesus praying and when he is done ask him “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” In Luke it is then that Jesus teaches them the Lord’s Prayer, and when he is done he adds this story of “The Knock at Midnight.”

“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.”

In that story we can understand Jesus to include non-verbal acts as prayer. Prayer is not just words. It is any focus we give to God, which is why study and even theology itself is prayer. Whatever we do that makes us conscious of God can be understood to be prayer. This fits in nicely with Paul’s advice in 1 Thessalonians (5:17) “pray without ceasing.” Paul does not mean talk non-stop to God, he means to approach and be conscious of God always–or strive to be (and striving to be is prayer!).

I have mentioned before that there are many other places in the Bible which indicate prayer includes THE non-verbal. Singing and dancing, playing music and even just being still and quiet are forms of prayer we hear in the Bible. Psalm 150 describes a whole bunch of ways 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!”

On the other end of spectrum Psalm 46 tells us to also take time to “Be still, and know that I am God: I am exalted among the nations . . .”
And while all forms of prayer can be serious, many forms can also be full of joy. Psalm 47 tells us to “Clap your hands all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of Joy.” I love that. Prayer need not be thought of as just talking to God. It can be any communication or expression of thoughts or feelings with, or about, God. Joy and sorrow, Laughter and anger, praise and frustration, concern and questions, gratitude and even just nothingness and silence can be prayer if they draw our focus on God. Prayer is anything which lets us approach God. So, the songs we sing, the lessons we hear, the words we pray, our offerings, sermons, communion and baptism can all be prayer if they open up our minds to God. The same can be said about a walk outside, thinking about God in creation, or seeing your children or loved one and thinking about gratitude to God for them or how God is in your love for them and theirs’s for you. That’s all prayer. So is study or thought of any kind about God, even questioning and doubting. If it gets our mind on God, it’s prayer.

So, you might ask, why should we pray? Well, Psalm 136 tells us to “[G]ive thanks to the Lord, for [God] is good, for [God’s] steadfast love endures forever.” Psalm 147 tells us to “Praise the Lord! How good it is to sing praises to our God; for [God] is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting. “Those are great reasons, but, there is another. When we get in touch with God, when we are conscience of God, we are conscience of Love. In fact, one way to pray is to love. Because love is by definition God, so focus on it is focus on God. When we love we bring more of God’s action into our lives, into the lives of others, into the world.

I pointed out in the note last month that the book of James states “Draw near to God and [God] will draw near to you (4:8).” Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you. That’s a huge reason why we pray, isn’t it? Because we want to be near the awe and wonder of creation and especially God’s love. Not just to hold love and be held by it, but to give it to others too. To pray unceasingly is to connect to awe and wonder of creation when we can, and especially to have love in our lives unceasingly.

Think about it. We have the ability to get closer to God to stop and notice and be in awe and wonder and to bring more Love into the world. We control how close we get to God and can add more of God’s action in the world! That love part is something we can help create. Each of us in this room can influence the quantity of Love in our lives and in the world.

If we draw ourselves near to God, love, is near to us and we help it come into the world and spread it around. God is of course already here. The Apostle Paul taught that we live and move and have our being in God. So, God is ever-present soaking all of creation through-and-through and if we just focus on it, God’s there. Prayer is taking the time and making the effort to sense God’s presence and show it to ourselves and to others. If we do anything, 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, nearer to us. That is what prayer is about. So, all year long we should make an extra effort to touch, see, feel, talk, sing, dance, walk, think and sit in quiet solitude in an effort to draw ourselves to God–who is everywhere, all the time.

Prayer is turning to sense God wherever we are. To bring our focus and other’s focus on that Sacred presence. Henri Nouwen put it this way: “Praying . . .means to think and live in the presence of God.” 3.

Nouwen also pointed out that,

“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

May we all learn to pray like that unceasingly. AMEN!

* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2010
1. Miller, Paul, ed., World’s Greatest Collection of Church Jokes, p. 50.
2. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol VIII, 206.
3. Nouwen, Henri, The Only Necessary Thing, Crossroads Publishing Co., (1999), p. 32
4. Ibid., p 40