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Based on the Scripture readings:
1 Kings 19:9-15a
Romans 8:22-27

2008 February 24
Third Sunday in Lent
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Wanting Prayer

As I mentioned earlier, on the third Sunday of each month we try often to go a little further, a little deeper, in contemplating and practicing prayer. This third Sunday in Lent is a good time to do this.

I begin with hymn text from the fifteenth century by Bianco de Siena. It's old fashioned, but it speaks to me as an overture to prayer: 

Come down O Love, divine,
seek thou this soul of mine,
and visit it with thine own ardor glowing.
O Comforter draw near,
within my heart appear,
and kindle it thy holy flame bestowing.

The best way to engage prayer is to pray, but I want to explore three ideas as a starting point for our journey. They're all inspirations to pray. First is the notion that prayer is wanting God. Second is the assertion that God is near. And third is the affirmation that God wants us. I hope that these help us.

William McNamara is the person who wrote this short, rich summary of our topic: he says "Prayer is wanting God, not wanting to want God." Prayer is wanting God. It's not something endlessly mysterious, although it certainly contains mystery. It's not inconceivably complex, although it deals with the most complicated of concerns. But whether our prayer is silent, spoken, expressed in action, individual or collective, it is defined by wanting God, which is simple and also revolutionary and amazing.

On some level, all of us came into this room this morning because we want God. Not because we know everything or trust everything or accept everything, but because we want something that is, indeed, beyond things. We want God. So in some way the mere act of our entering this room is a prayer.

Now we all want God, indeed we each want God, in many different ways. Sometimes we want God in silence, or supplication, which means something about our times of need. But sometimes we want God amidst experiences of ecstasy, joy, irrational exuberance, and that can mean almost the opposite of silence. But it's all about wanting God, which makes the implicit claim that God's presence

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is more important than God's distance.

I do not want to live in a world without God's presence. I really don't. As strong as is my ego, and as much my distaste for powerlessness of sorts, as much as I disdain so much of the history of God's people in crusade and inquisition and discrimination and exclusion and just plain old mean-spirited stupidity, and as much as I want to live in a world without all of that, I don't want to live in one without God.

There is almost nothing that I know about love, about justice, about inclusiveness, hope, respect, health, intellect, about global politics, hunger programs, social progress, illness, evil, relationships, and my own ability to sleep soundly at peace with myself that is not touched by God. That's a whole bunch of other sermons, but it all comes down to the truth that I want God. I'm not saying that my whole life is a prayer. I am saying that I value prayer and even need prayer, always.

The Biblical scholar Gunther Bornkamm says that the essence of Jesus' prayers, all Jesus' prayers, has one simple message: God is near. It all comes down to that. God is near. Consider the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples that we repeat today. God, thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done. Give us daily bread. Immerse us in the economy of interpersonal forgiveness. Let the cup to pass from us. Have you forsaken us? We believe that you are near, that you hear, that the time that we are in and the time that we are entering are times touched by you. As close as our heart, our breast, our body, the body of Christ. God, you are near.

We heard two Biblical witnesses about the voice of God and the proximity of God in the readings this morning. First we heard about Elijah in that dramatic, astounding moment of anxiousness and fear and purpose climaxing in his run from Jezebel and perhaps from God, but God keeps feeding him and finally says, get out of your cave Elijah, and I'll be right there. And then we witness the litany of explosive, almost supernatural events where there arrives a rock-crushing wind, but God is not in the wind, and an earth-shaking tremor, but God is not in the earthquake, and a holy, searing, consuming fire, but God is not in the fire. It makes me wonder why insurance companies still call these "acts of God," when the scriptures say they aren't. Because after all those comes God's act. God's voice, actually. The RSV names it as a "still, small voice." The NRSV says it is the "sound of sheer silence." No one translates it sufficiently: God's voice is bath qo* (pronounced bat cole), which as I said a few weeks ago comes through quite simply as "the daughter of a sound."

Have you ever heard the daughter of a sound? It's not always helpful to ask if people hear voices. But have you heard the daughter of a sound, sensing God's presence? I have. Because sometimes

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I realize that God is near.

In Kings we learn about what it sounds like when God is near. The Apostle Paul talks about what we sound like when we draw near to God. Here in Romans he's talking about when life is hard. He's addressing when we're under duress, persecution even, and waiting in body and soul just to get better. He pleads for "the redemption of our bodies," and we can all sense what that means. Then he introduces to our language both the essence and the idiom of how we sound, sometimes, when we're talking to God about our deepest concerns. Listen to these two phrases, the first of which says "The Spirit helps us in our weakness," and then "the Spirit intercedes for us, with sighs too deep for words." Sighs too deep for words.

If these two phrases are translated awkwardly but literally, the first says that "the Spirit takes a share in the weakness of us," and the second one says "the Spirit supplicates on our behalf with groans unutterable." Is that how we pray in God's presence? With sighs too deep for words and groans unutterable, beside someone with a share in us?

Prayer is wanting God. God is near.

But there is one more thing, too. God wants us. What I learn from the scriptures, from community, from history, and from simply paying attention in church, if you will, is that God wants me, too. God wants each of us and all of us.

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki is a theologian who writes about prayer. This is kind of a long passage, but it doesn't take a lot of explaining, so it worthily supplants my words. And it is completely worth the time. Suchocki writes "Suppose it is valid to say that recognition of God can enhance our ability to live lives of peace, justice, and beauty. Suppose that prayer … constitutes this recognition, and that the recognition is not necessarily limited to our intellects but goes beyond the depths of ourselves. Suppose that prayer is our openness to God who pervades this universe and therefore ourselves and that prayer is also this God's openness to us." Now listen to this: "In such a case, prayer is not only for our sakes but for God's sake. This would make prayer essential to God as well as to ourselves. What if prayer increases the effectiveness of God's work with the world? …our prayers make a difference to God… (which) brings us to the basic (claim): God works with the world as it is in order to bring it where it can be. 

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Prayer changes the way the world is, and therefore changes the way the world can be. Prayer opens the world to its own transformation." Or in my words, God wants us for new creation.

Isn't that the essential story from Genesis to Amos to Romans to us? God wants and calls and asks us to be involved not only with the divine in our midst but with the creation of the divine that we are in the midst of. Faith and prayer and church and theology aren't only about something that we discover or practice or assemble or deploy. They are about the need of the world, the need of ourselves, the need of God. It is fine and good to pray when airplanes take off or when automobiles crash. It is right to pray on Sundays and at dinnertimes, thankful for Sabbath and food and inherited faith. We do that because we want God, because God is near, but also because God wants us, and our existence changes when we enter it and endow it with our prayers for more. Indeed, the issues of love and justice, inclusiveness and hope, health, politics, hunger programs, and all the others are different because of our prayer. They need our prayer.

I have preached before on scientific studies about prayer and different reflections on its difficulty: prayer is hard, even for Jesus' disciples. I've preached on the similarity between Eastern practices and Zen and ancient Christian discipline and on some simple devices for prayer. But today I make those three assertions for one reason: our whole creation needs our prayer. As quiet as the daughter of a sound. As difficult as groans unutterable. As essential as divinity. God's creation needs us.

"Wait a while and watch and pray," says Jesus. Three ingredients there, too. Perhaps we can be with each other, learn from each other, and speak with each other words to transform the world to where it can be by changing where it is with our prayers beyond the mind we have. There's a revolutionary grace of God and act of true repentance.


*Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, from In God's Presence, Theological Reflections on Prayer, © Chalice Press, St. Louis, Missouri, 1996. This bit if from page 18 - 19, but the whole book is wonderful.

Copyright © 2008 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.
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Parent page ] Sermon "Sacred Vessels" ] Sermon "No System to Save" ] Sermon "Entitled to be Thankful" ] Sermon "Welcome Food" ] Sermon "Waking Devotion" ] Sermon "Sitting at the Welcome Table" ] Sermon "Table Manners" ] Sermon "Speaking of God" ] Sermon "Singing New Songs" ] Sermon "Prepare the Way" ] Sermon "Here-ing God" ] Sermon "The Possibility of Possibility" ] Sermon "Sweet Creations" ] Sermon "Not at All Dead" ] Sermon "Planning, Praising and Pondering Palms" ] Sermon "March for Life" ] Sermon "Imagination, Dreams, and Vision" ] Sermon "Following the Magi" ] Sermon "Pushing Christmas" ] Sermon "Forecasts" ] Sermon "Ready for Christmas" ] Sermon "God in the Middle" ] Sermon "The Days to Come, the One to Come" ] Sermon "Earthly Healing" ] Sermon "Digesting Communion" ] Sermon "The Change of Prayer" ] Sermon "Unbreakable Body" ] Sermon "Seeing Clearly" ] Sermon "Right for Present" ] Sermon "A Change Agent" ] Sermon "What is Sabbath" ] Sermon "In Memory of Hope" ] Sermon "These Baptisms are Killing Us" ] [ Sermon "Wanting Prayer" ] Sermon "Last Minute Gifts" ] Sermon "Praying Well = Praying Much" ] Sermon "Peace Repent, Peace Remember" ] Sermon "Choosing Church" ] Sermon "A Model Church" ] Sermon "The Empire Struck Back" ] Sermon "Love is Patient and Primary" ] Sermon "Manifestations" ] Sermon "The Green Grace of God" ] Sermon "Signs of Sacred Things" ] Sermon "A Deal with the Future" ] Sermon "Free from Fear" ] Sermon "To Carry Each Other" ] Sermon " With God in Death; with Each Other in Dying" ] Sermon "Healing Prayers" ] Sermon "Facing God's Miracle" ] Sermon "Finding All Three" ] Sermon "Controlling Christmas" ] Sermon "Finding Jesus" ] Sermon "God as a Baby" ] Sermon "What Does It Mean" ] Sermon "Katrina's New Covenant Call" ] Sermon "Elevate your Expectations" ] Sermon "See: the Healing" ] Sermon "Lifeless Chaos and Living Creation" ] Sermon "Rapt Gifts" ] Sermon "Welcome to Reality" ] Sermon "Offering Up Thanks" ] Sermon "Blue State Blues" ] Sermon "Are we not entitled to thanks?" ] Sermon "Ancient Pieces of Peace" ] Sermon "Noticing Neighbors" ] Sermon "A Summer Day of Renewal" ] Sermon "A New Thing" ] Sermon "Breath of New Life" ] Sermon "Easter" ] Sermon "Sin: Currently Tense" ] Sermon "Why Are You Angry?" ] Sermon "Anxiety over Sin" ] Sermon "A Marriage Grade in Heaven?" ] Sermon "Isn't Marriage Gay?" ] Sermon "Expanding the Body of Christ" ] Sermon "Miracles:  Seeing More in our Midst" ] Sermon "Turning to God" ] Sermon "Why are You in Churchl" ] Sermon "Remember your Baptism" ] Sermon "Every Day Spirituality" ] Sermon "The Cross and Joy of Love" ] Sermon "Welcome Back" ] Sermon "Living Together" ] Sermon "Transforming Destruction" ] Sermon "The Work of Healing" ] Sermon "Peace" ]

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