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Based on the Scripture readings:
Psalm 62:5-12

2009 January 25
Third Sunday after Epiphany
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

The Change of Prayer

At the heart of my own faith is a perspective about prayer, wonderfully articulated by Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki. And here's the whole sermon in one sentence -- Prof. Suchocki's sentence:* "Prayer changes the way the world is, and therefore changes what the world can be." Prayer changes the way the world is, and therefore changes what the world can be. With God's participation.

About twenty years ago, there was a great deal of scientific anxiety about prayer. There were a large number of scientific studies about the effectiveness of prayer. I have some of them in my office because I caught that anxiety. There were medical doctors like Bernie Siegel and double-blind studies, funded by insurance companies, examining whether prayer works. Magazines like Time had cover stories, and organizations like the University of Tennessee conducted research. Depending upon who you read, you could defend two conclusions: that it does and does not work, to a scientist's eye.

In the months since last November, there has been another layer of anxiety about prayer. This time it had to do with who would pray for Obama's Presidency, and many people, including me, didn't like the choice for inaugural prayer, so additional spokespeople for prayer were added to additional public venues, like Bishop Gene Robinson at the Lincoln Memorial, invited to settle the diversity issue, but then Home Box Office didn't televise his inaugural prayer, and the loudspeakers malfunctioned on the national mall during it, and another layer of internet outrage evolved, all over prayer.

Now as someone who rather enjoyed the controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright from a theological perspective, my heart was doubly warmed recently as America debated who should pray and what should be allowed and where was the power, all tipping the unconscious scales of scientific observation with an at-large poll suggesting that a whole lot of us do believe that prayer matters and that it does mean something and is, indeed, effective!

Prayer changes the way the world is, and therefore changes what the world can be.

When Suchocki wrote this it was not from a scientific perspective or a political one but from a Christian theological perspective, theology being faith seeking understanding. And I'm with her because all the other anxiety and excitement only proves my perspective -- right out of the gate:Back to top most of us do believe that prayer has a power, not completely subject to scientific study.

I'd like to offer a few words of wisdom from several thinkers reflecting sixteen hundred years of Christianity, and then I'd like to pray. I'm doing this this morning because, while on the one hand it is right to do on any given Sunday, on this particular Sunday we've heard earnest prayers in the Psalms for several weeks in a row and seen this recent national intrigue with prayer, and furthermore, I rather need to. In the midst of this economy, these wars, this season of cold and fear as well as optimism and hope, this week before our own annual business takes center stage, I need to pray.

I'd rather not admit it like this, but I have spiritual dry spells at times. I don't always pray as I might, although I took an ordination vow to do so, and it is literally in my contract with you that I'll keep it up, and it is literally in your contract with me that you will pray "all proper prayer" to support me. But I have dry spells where I perceive, discern, or sense less from God than I want. And I don't want us to have a dry spell but, as we are doing in so many other portions of our congregational life, to go deeper and farther.

To create common ground, I offer three longer-than-normal-for-me expressions from Prof. Suchocki, which share her notion of God, her sense of the dynamic of prayer, and her belief that it keeps us all connected. I'll share these first before several others and before praying, although I must say that I find Suchocki's style and expression quite spiritual and powerful, prayerful even, on its own. You might even want to listen with your eyes closed. Here are her offerings to guide us, invoking God's presence, imagining the impact of our prayer, and then its importance to God's creation:

"If God's power is presence, think of the difference this makes to the knowing of God. God's presence, like water, pervades the nooks and crannies of existence -- what is the boundary of water? the boundary of God? A stone marks the edge of the water and its own existence; what marks the edge between our own and God's existence? … Would it be so strange to consider that the omnipresent God pervades us without at all displacing us? (p. 9)"

Back to topGod is omnipresent to us.

(Now) "Suppose it is valid to say that recognition of God can enhance our ability to lead lives of peace, justice, and beauty. Suppose that prayer, regardless of our images and of our theologies, constitutes this recognition, and that this recognition is not necessarily limited to our intellects but goes to the depths of ourselves. Suppose that prayer is our openness to the God, who pervades the universe and therefore ourselves, and this prayer is also this God's openness to us. … What if prayer increases the effectiveness of God's work with the world? God's invitation to us to pray -- indeed, God's gracious command to us to pray -- suggests the possibility that our prayers make a difference to God, and therefore might possibly make a difference to what God can do in the world. (p. 19)

"All things relate to all other things. In this interdependent world, everything that exists experiences to some degree the effects of everything else. We are so constituted that very, very little of all this relationality makes it to our conscious awareness. But we are connected, nonetheless; it is sure. Praying lifts these loose connections to our conscious awareness in the context of God's presence. We … feel an echo of that divine meeting and weaving, no matter how distant the one for whom we pray." (p. 47)

God is everywhere. Our prayers make a difference to God's everywhere. We are connected everywhere as we pray.

These are enormous claims. Yet not much different than saying "For God alone my soul waits in silence, my hope is from God, On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge, is God. Trust in God at all times, O people; pour out your heart before God," says the Psalmist. They're not so different from saying "Our hearts are restless, God, until they find their rest in thee," as did Augustine sixteen hundred years ago. Or from saying, "Prayer ones the soul to God." Julian of Norwich said that in 1400. Or from saying "Holy Father, keep (thy disciples) in thy name … that they may be one, even as we are one… That they may all be one even as thou, father, art in me and I in thee, Back to top that they may also be in us…" Jesus said that in his farewell prayer.

These are enormous claims, but they all say that prayer does matter, that it reflects and reveals our created connection not only to the Body of Christ but to the whole of the universe and the transcendence and immanence of God. And they mean that what we do for a moment before bed, or for an hour in the middle of the night, what we do every morning reading scripture or every once in a while in airplanes and hospital rooms has a power, a purpose, and a presence. God wants, the world needs, our prayer. And if Suchocki is right, if Jesus is right, it is worth our time and understanding and attention and practice.

It is worth our mature thought, too. For what prayer can offer is reality based, not magic based. It is grounded in the goodness and omnipresence of God and in the admission that we can't reverse the irreversible but that we must pursue the possible. One author writes that if every baseball player's prayers at bat were answered they would all hit 1000, and the game would be ruined in 24 hours. But, again, Suchocki says that prayer represents God's invitation to participate in bringing the world closer to the fullness and reflection of God's character. (p. 29) It's not about magic. It's about hope and joy in God.

Yet I go through dry spells, and the only comfort I find there is that virtually every saint, even the modern ones like Mother Teresa, go through dry spells. But something I never neglect is prayers with our children. In some ways that's a huge jump from where we were just a moment ago, but in another way it is the avenue for our approach and the inspiration today. Because I've learned a lot about prayer from practicing its simplest forms. When my daughter was three she made the same point in one phrase that Suchocki makes in 127 pages. One evening I asked her, as usual, for what she wanted to pray. This often meant for mommy, for grandpa, for sunshine, and so forth. But one night she added to the list, simply, "for God." She just wanted to pray for God. She didn't know that for 5,000 years Jewish and then Christian prayer form has begun with praise or blessing for God. She didn't know about the fivefold Back to top Hebrew style manual including thanksgiving for God. She just wanted a friendly prayer, for God.

Just a few nights ago I asked her, as we do off and on, to lead the prayer herself instead of having parental words. She's gotten pretty articulate in her eighth year, and after a few minutes of thanksgiving and petition she said, "and now we will conclude with the Lord's Prayer," and we did, and I thought in the dark warmth of the upstairs parsonage bedroom how this prayer and these words connect us across language and time and economic condition and denominational division not only to a common language of hope and love but somehow to the words of Jesus, the words of God, and as often as I suggest this myself when she suggested it, it caught me by surprise and opened the prayer again for me, even further.

If we're having trouble in prayer we could just pray for God and could just pray the Lord's Prayer. Books of a thousand pages make points no more complex.

But we are not always having dry spells. Sometimes we can hardly contain our thanksgiving and joy, our celebration and hope, our optimism and irrational exuberance. Airplanes and hospital rooms are not the only places for prayer. And if prayer connects us to all creation, there is virtually nothing in creation that should not be named in our expressions. So it is good and right to be as wide-ranging and inclusive as we can, too. We can at times go on and on and on.

John Chapman, a contemporary writer, says "The only way to pray is to pray; and the way to pray well is to pray much." It makes a difference. To ourselves, to our God, to God's creation.

Prayer has many forms -- public, private, liturgical, petitionary, intercessory, confessional, invocational, and more -- and they all come down to this: prayer is God's gift, revealing the union that we have with the divine and the creation and the cosmos -- even with one another. When we pray it changes the way the world is and what the world can be. It is simple, and complex, and it is less to be talked about than practiced, so let us sing together, and then let us pray.

Copyright © 2009 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.
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*Fundamental ideas for a portion of this sermon are grounded in a wonderful book by Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki: In God's Presence: Theological Reflections on Prayer. (© Chalice Press, St. Louis, MS; 1996.) This first notation is from page 31. In the remainder of the text all of the items from Suchocki are from this same book with only the page numbers noted. If you want to read a wise, faithful, inspiring book on prayer, choose this one. It's much fuller than my sermon.

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