Sermon: " The Value of Prayer in Christian Life," April 7, 2019

Fifth Sunday in Lent
Catherine Kelly, Guest Preacher
Part 5 in our series “Practicing Christian,” on the Discipline of Prayer

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
— Mark 1:29-39 (NRSV)
Catherine Kelly.jpg

Catherine Kelly was our guest preacher. Catherine led a retreat “Finding God in All Things” on Ignatian Spirituality the day before. Catherine is retreat director at St. Mark’s Parish, UBC, and an experienced Spiritual Director.

Rising very early before dawn, Jesus left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. (Mark 1:35)

 In today’s sermon, I will explore What is prayer? How do we pray? And what happens when we pray?

We may pray by singing like your beautiful choir does. Teresa of Avila said singing is praying twice.

We may have a daily prayer practice, reading scripture, daily devotions, or pray-as-you-go.

We may pray prayers of petition, asking God to help us in our need and for healing. 

We may pray prayers of blessing on our loved ones and before we eat.

We may pray prayers of praise and thanksgiving as we hear in Philippians Chapter 4:4-6:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.

We may even pray to know God’s will for us. Ron Delbene in his book, The Breath of Life, writes that Paul’s sense of the will of God is one of love.  The word which we translate into English as will comes from both a Hebrew and a Greek word which means yearning. It is that yearning which lovers have for one another. Not a yearning of the mind alone or the heart alone but of the whole being.  Any yearning which we feel is only a glimmering of the depth of the yearning of God for us.

 

Mary Oliver, in her poem “Praying” writes 

 

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

The Christian tradition has many rich ways of praying and there is no one “right” way of praying.

My background is in the spirituality of Ignatius of Loyola. For Ignatius, prayer is a dialogue between God and us.  God always takes the initiative. God acts first. God who is love created us out of love and desires to love us unconditionally. God desires a loving relationship with us.

The starting point of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, the Principle and Foundation, guide us: “The goal of our life is to be with God forever.” God, who loves us, gave us life. Our one and only natural response to this love is to love in return.  To love and serve God in everything.  Our own response of love allows God’s life to flow into us without limit. God calls. We respond.

How free are we to respond to God’s call? Ignatius believes that our desire for intimacy with God is our priority, the goal of our life.  That we should not desire a long life or a short one, health or illness, wealth or poverty, success or failure.  For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God.   If our desire for something is greater than our desire for God, then Ignatius calls that a “disordered attachment.”  When we are free from disordered attachments or at least aware of them and don’t let them influence our decisions, then we are free for God.  Ignatius calls this spiritual freedom or indifference. In the Beatitudes, Jesus blesses those who are poor in spirit.  Spiritual poverty is total dependence on God.  Total spiritual freedom. 

How do we hear God’s voice? We begin by cultivating the ability to listen deeply, to hear “with the ear of our hearts.”  Like Elijah in the cave, we listen for the still, small voice of God, the “faint murmuring sound” which is God’s word for us, God’s voice touching our hearts. This gentle listening is an “attunement” to the presence of God in our lives. 

As we listen for and respond to the will of God in our own lives, we may wonder: Does God really speak to us? Does God speak to me? Yes!

God is deeply in love with each one of us. In fact, God yearns to communicate with us and tell us: “I love you. I love you. I love you.”

We may hear God’s voice in the scriptures, in our experience of church, of community, of family, in our conversations with others, in the beauty of creation, in art, music, poetry, in personal prayer and in the deepest desires of our heart.

Ignatius founded a new religious order, the Jesuits.  The Superior General is in charge of all the Jesuits around the world. Immediate past Jesuit Superior General Fr. Adolfo Nicolas wrote the following to Jesuits around the world and I think it applies to us as well:

 “I believe that one of the primary challenges facing us today is that of recovering the spirit of silence… I am thinking of our hearts. We all need a place inside ourselves where there is no noise, where the voice of the Spirit of God can speak to us, softly and gently, and direct our discernment. In a very true sense we need the ability to become ourselves - silence, emptiness, an open space that the Word of God can fill, and the Spirit of God can set on fire for the good of others and of the Church.

More than ever, we need to be able to live like a monk in the middle of the noise of the city. That means that our hearts are our monasteries and at the bottom of every activity, every reflection, every decision, there is silence, the kind of silence that one shares only with God.”

This is a lofty and attractive ideal. We won’t always achieve it, but perhaps at times with God’s help we can arrive at this place of prayerful silence where we can hear God speaking to us in an intimate way.

Incorporating prayer into our daily lives takes discipline just like exercise and healthy diet do. That’s why St. Ignatius of Loyola refers to daily prayer and retreats as spiritual exercises. Prayer is essential to a deep, personal relationship with God. This Lent and Easter season, I invite you to commit yourselves to a period of time – perhaps when you get up in the morning, during your lunch hour or before you go to bed at night – to spend in prayer, quieting yourself down, being aware of God’s presence and talking to God about your concerns as you would with a close friend or a spouse.

I chose this scripture passage because Jesus shows us how he incorporates rest and prayer into his mission, allowing him to be balanced and truly love, serve and care for God, self and neighbor.  I offer this as a model for you.

I will lead you into a guided meditation on the passage. This is one method of Ignatian prayer.

The Setting: [191-197] I let myself be totally present to the scene, in this case the town of Capernaum, Peter and Andrew's house and the quiet deserted place where Jesus goes to pray. The image on the screen is the view of the Sea of Galilee from the place tradition holds is the deserted place where Jesus went to pray, the Eremos Grotto, a 30-minute walk from Capernaum.  I like to imagine this is the deserted place where Jesus went to pray. You could imagine another place. Engaging my full imagination and all my senses I let myself be present to the mystery that is unfolding.

The story takes place from late afternoon to sundown, in the evening and in the early morning.  Imagine being one of the characters in the passage or an unnamed character, an unnamed disciple who participates and witnesses all that is going on.  Ideally, you are yourself in the scene.

Imagine walking from the synagogue to the home of Simon and Andrew.  Are your feet getting dusty in your sandals? Where is the sun in the sky? What is the temperature of the air? What are you and Jesus talking about on the way home?

When you arrive, Simon's mother-in-law is sick in bed with a fever.  She is usually such a great hostess, providing all you need, encouraging you and Jesus and the others in your ministry. How does she look? How do you feel seeing her so sick?

What does Jesus' face look like when you tell him she is sick?  How does he interact with her? Does he gently take her hand and raise her up? Does he do it with confidence? with compassion? How do you feel when you see that she is healed instantly?

Now look outside, you can see the sun setting.  You can hear and see the whole town coming to the house, bringing all the sick and possessed.  What does it sound like? What does it look like to have the whole town pressing up against the house? What does it smell like to have so many people, so many sick people so close to you?  What type of energy is in the air?

Now you see Jesus healing many people of their various diseases and even demoniacs. What does that look like? What does it sound like? How do you feel seeing Jesus heal these people, some of whom you know from the neighborhood or the market or the synagogue or the fishing boats?

Can you sense Jesus' energy level? First, he healed someone at the synagogue, then Simon's mother-in-law, now all these folks from the town.  Is he getting tired? Does he feel drained? Or does caring for others energize him? Is he pleased to glorify God through his works?

Nighttime comes and everyone goes home.  You, Jesus and the other disciples go to sleep. Very early the next morning, before daylight, you hear Jesus creeping out of the house. You tiptoe out to quietly follow to see where he is going.  He finds a deserted place near the lake and begins to pray. Can you feel the breeze off the water? Can you hear the waves lapping the shore?  What posture does Jesus take when he prays? Can you hear what he is saying to God the Father? What is he praying for? Is he giving thanks for all the healing? Is he asking his father to sustain him in his ministry? 

You, too, feel called to pray.  What do you say to God? After accompanying Jesus in his ministry?

Soon Simon and the others find Jesus and you.  What do you sense about Jesus' prayer? And the Father's response? Did the Father respond to your prayer? If so, how?

Jesus says "Let's go to the other villages so I may preach there. That is why I came."  Apparently, this early morning prayer session motivated him to keep going with his mission.  How are you feeling? Are you ready to journey with him?  Are you ready for Jesus to accompany you in your life to your work, your classes, your home?

Why pray? What happens when we pray? Paul tells us in Philippians 4:7 if we pray, “Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” That sounds like a pretty good reason to me.

If prayer is a dialogue with God, let’s look at what happens to the disciples when they dialogue with Jesus. Please forgive me if during Lent, I draw upon 3 post-Resurrection stories. But any encounter we as modern-day Christians have with Jesus is with the Risen Lord.

Like Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb in the garden in John 20:1-2, 11-18, we each can be absorbed in our own cares and worries, so focused on our own concerns that we miss the Lord calling to us.  Not just calling us but calling us by name. Our name.  What could be more important than the call of the Risen Lord to me by my name right here and right now? 

The call of the Risen Christ is transformative for Mary Magdalene.  The Risen Christ appears to Mary Magdalene and by simply calling her name, he snaps her out of her grief.  His call moves her focus from the past, from her memories of their friendship and the tragedy of the crucifixion to the present, to the glory of his fulfilled promise of resurrection, and to the hope of his ascension to God the Father.  Jesus tells her to stop holding onto him and onto the past so that she can embrace the marvelous new way of being in relationship with Jesus.  By letting go of her grief, Mary Magdalene opens herself up to hear and believe the good news that Jesus is “going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”  By simply saying Mary Magdalene’s name, Jesus transforms her state of mind and heart.

We believe that this loving God of Jesus not only knows each of us by name but also knows each of our heart’s deepest desires and wants us to have life to the fullest.  

What might Jesus do for us if we listen to him calling us by our name?  How might our hearts and minds be transformed?  How does he say your name?  What does he say?

We remember the story from Luke Chapter 24 of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, one is Cleopas and the other is likely his wife Mary who was at the foot of the cross with Mary the mother of Jesus.  They were leaving Jerusalem, turning away from their life of discipleship and abandoning the community of followers of Jesus. Afraid, distraught, they were walking home to isolate themselves after the tragedy of the crucifixion.  How many of us have experienced tragedy and grief?

Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him. He asked them, “What are you discussing as you walk along?” They stopped, looking downcast.  One of them, named Cleopas, said to him in reply, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?” And he replied to them, “What sort of things?” They said to him, “The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene,” and they tell him about their hopes and dreams and how they were dashed and destroyed by the crucifixion, and the confusion they are experiencing now at their friends’ tales of the empty tomb.

Despite their intense grief, Jesus interprets the scriptures for them, explaining how the Messiah would suffer before he entered into his glory.

Something about their encounter with this stranger on the road, made them invite him to stay with them in their home. Stay with us. Be with us. Then they recognized him in the breaking of the bread and returned to Jerusalem to the other disciples to share the good news of the resurrection.  In reflecting on their encounter, they said to each other:

“Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?”

This dialogue with Jesus, this sharing the deepest concerns of their hearts with him, and their openness to hearing his response, caused their hearts to burn within themselves.  Hearts burning in the presence of Emmanuel. God is with us. Even in our darkest hour.  Hearts on fire for love of God.  These disciples model for us a way to dialogue with Jesus – sharing whatever is on our hearts with him and being open to his response to us.  A response that may transform us.  It certainly transformed Cleopas and Mary from dejected has-been followers to enthusiastic evangelists.

The third example is from John 21.  The disciples had spent a long night fishing.  Jesus eagerly awaits them and feeds them a campfire breakfast of fish and bread on the beach.  Jesus asks Peter twice, “Do you love me?” The English translation does not capture the nuance of the terms used for love in the question.  Jesus asks: Do you agape me? Do you love me unconditionally like I love you? And twice Peter is confused and says I phileo you. That is, I love you like a brother, like a friend.  Jesus knows Peter and understands Peter’s limitations just like he knows and understands each one of us. Jesus still loves Peter unconditionally and even puts him in charge of caring for his flock of believers.  The third time knowing Peter is unable to make the leap to agape love, Jesus shifts.  Jesus meets Peter where he is –Jesus asks do you phileo me? Do you love me like a brother? And Peter responds yes, I love you like a brother. 

Jesus meets us where we are.  He knows our limitations, our weaknesses, our desires.  He loves us despite our shortcomings.  He loves us unconditionally. And he invites us to love him in return in whatever way we can – whether it’s as a friend, as a brother, as our companion on the way, as our Lord and Savior, as the Love beyond all loves. 

What would happen if we were truly honest in our conversations with Jesus? If we shared our desires, our shortcomings, our confusion? And if instead of thinking we need to change, we need to do something to reach Jesus, we need to say the “right” words or pray the “right” way -- what if we expected Jesus to understand us and our situation and to meet us right where we are? To anticipate our need, to prepare a campfire breakfast for us and to accompany us each step of our lives?

German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, in a 1946 sermon to post-war Germans, preached on the need and blessing of prayer:

In the final analysis, talking about prayer doesn’t matter; rather, only the words that we ourselves say to God. And one must say these words oneself.

Oh, they can be quiet, poor, and diffident. They can rise up to God’s heaven like silver doves from a happy heart, or they can be the inaudible flowing of bitter tears. They can be great and sublime like thunder that crashes in the high mountains, or diffident like the shy confession of a first love.

If they only come from the heart. If they only might come from the heart. And if only the Spirit of God prays them together also. Then God hears them. Then he will forget none of these words. Then he will keep the words in his heart because one cannot forget the words of love.

And he will listen to us patiently, even blissfully, an entire life long until we are through talking, until we have spoken out our entire life. And then he will say one single word of love, but he is this word itself. And then our heart will stop beating at this word. For eternity.

Don’t we want to pray? [1]

Amen.


[1]  Karl Rahner, The Need and the Blessing of Prayer, trans. Bruce W. Gillette (Collegeville, MN: The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., 1997), 101.