One thing you may have noticed is that every sermon I have given so far has been somewhat about prayer. It is my firm belief that there is nothing more important to our lives as followers of Christ than keeping the lines of communication open to the one we follow. Let me tell you, I have an agenda for this church. My agenda is to establish a culture in which the words: “Let’s pray about that.” become a part of everyone’s daily vocabulary. Prayer is a powerful thing and for most of us is a frightening thing. Our God is a consuming fire and it can be a painful process to be consumed by that fire, but when we walk through those flames, Friends, we are not merely consumed, we are refined. Before I go on, I have a confession to make: my prayer life needs work. I get too busy to pray, I talk a lot about prayer and then don’t do it, I get distracted by my kids, I get so wrapped up in tasks that I not only don’t invite God into them, I want to hide from God because I fell short again, and sometimes I am mad at God and don’t want to talk or have anything to do with him. In other words I am just like you and this sermon is a challenge to me as well.
Trying to pick just one text for prayer is like trying to pick just one kernel of corn from the field. The Bible gives us insight into the history of the ongoing conversation between God and humanity. Some would even say that the Bile is prayer. Not only that, we cannot rightly understand the Bible or what it has to teach us if we do not have the words’ meanings opened to us by the Holy Spirit. God so strongly desires our relationship that we cannot rightly understand the scriptures without that prayer base. God placed this text on my mind last week at the Youth Sunday School class.
13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. James 5:13-16
The only reason I am here as your pastor is that a man named Gene Cannon prayed. Gene was the manager of the store where my dad worked. My father was the classic angry young man of the 60s, and was caught up in the new drug culture. Gene could have judged my father; fired him and thought nothing more of it, but Gene was a follower of Jesus and he prayed. Gene prayed for years and it looked like nothing was happening. My father moved away and yet Gene still prayed. A seed had been planted and Gene was going to faithfully water that seed with prayer until my father was saved or Gene died and could bother Jesus in person. It was in late September 35 years ago that my mother was brought into the kingdom. The rest of us fell like dominoes, in late November of 1977 Jesus reached out and grabbed me and in late December my father followed. Gene prayed my family into the kingdom, and without that man’s faithfulness, it is very likely that I would not be here as your pastor today. It is because of one person’s prayer that I have been in relationship with Jesus for 35 years. The prayer of the righteous was powerful and effective and is still bearing fruit.
When we pray, we open the doors of our hearts to the God who is always present and invite Him to set our priorities. This is definitely one of the scarier pieces of prayer, but most of us who have been in the faith a while can tell stories of transformation that happened when we trusted God’s judgment over our own. The Friends teach that this transformation occurs when we sit in silence to listen and hear from the voice of God, the promised Holy Spirit who has been poured out on all flesh. That is why it is so important to pause when we pray and listen. With practice our prayer lives begin to have longer and longer silences in which we are taught and transformed by the renewing of our minds. Eventually we get to the point where our first response to any situation is to look to God. When things look grim and we are feeling the hurt that comes to all of us we need to pray. When we have cause to celebrate we need to praise God. Whatever life sends our way, God needs to be our first response. As we listen to God and keep turning to him first, interesting things begin to happen. We begin to see what God is doing in the world around us and start hearing God inviting us to participate in his work. While my father worked at the convenience store, Gene was like a father to my dad. Because Gene prayed he was clued in to the true needs and the truth that my dad didn’t have a male role model in his life because my grandfather had died when dad was 13. Gene went from praying, to listening, to being God’s hands and feet. When we pray and listen, sometimes we are given the opportunity to be the answer to someone else’s prayer. How awesome is that? By paying attention to God and practicing at listening we get invited to be the ones working out God’s redemptive purposes for our broken world. We get to be the ones bearing the oil of anointing to heal.
One of the things it is easy to forget is just how much sin is in each of our lives. Each one of us has thought patterns and commits actions that fall short of the glory of God. Quite often the reason why I don’t pray is that I am all too aware of how much I messed up that day and think that if I hide from God I won’t have to deal with myself. There are some pretty nasty symptoms that come with this lack of confession. I look for distractions so that I don’t have to think about my brokenness. I focus on other people’s sin and point it out so that people are not looking at me. Focusing on someone else’s brokenness also helps me to say in my mind “See, I am not that bad. At least I am not like them.” We are called however to confess our brokenness before God and to each other. It is important to have someone in your life that can hold you accountable, that is a safe person for you to confess with, and someone with whom you can pray for God to come in and heal you. It is this kind of accountability and confession that helps alcoholics overcome their addiction in AA meetings. “Hi my name is Gilbert and I have sinned. Please pray for me.” Of course, this is tough in a church. We are not anonymous and often we have little grace to pray that God will change people. One of the saddest things that I have seen in a church is when a young woman who sang on the choir got pregnant by another young man in the church and was kicked out of the choir and placed under church discipline. Just when this young woman most needed the support of her faith community in facing the challenges that came from succumbing to a moment’s temptation, she was cast aside and punished. We of course do things like this all the time. In Tramp for the Lord, Corrie Ten Boom said that she found it easier to forgive the guards at the concentration camp than it was to forgive other Christians who had sinned against her. We forget just how much the church depends on forgiveness. The Bible teaches very clearly that we are broken and that our brokenness doesn’t magically disappear when we are saved. We are going to wound each other. We are going to sin against each other. We are going to speak words that bring hurt and talk about people behind their backs. Each person in this room has sinned against others in this room. There are no exceptions. In that way we are just like everyone else in the world. There is a difference however. Through prayer we have the power to forgive and the power to confess. Friends, don’t wait for the other person or people to make the first step, don’t let bitterness build up in your heart. No matter how deeply you feel the pain that has been inflicted start with the simple prayer of asking God to help you forgive. Do we want to see this church grow as followers of Christ? Then we need to forgive as Christ did.
This is the hardest part of following Jesus: Forgiving what we think we are owed.
Do you think someone owes you an apology? Forgive that debt. Do you think someone has sinned against you? Forgive that debt. Are you waiting for a Thank You that never came? Forgive that debt. I am sure you can think about other things that fit here as well, but you get my point. When we pray “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” it should be a reminder to us of what is at stake. Forgiving others what they owe us can feel like the most expensive grace we ever give. Grace is always cheap to the one receiving it and usually too expensive to the one giving it. True grace is unmerited favor; when we give grace it is the opposite of what the other person deserves. Confession time again: I also am not the greatest person in the world when it comes to grace. It doesn’t always show on the outside, but what goes through my head when I am dealing with someone who has wounded me in the past could blister the paint on the walls. Avoiding prayer and silence means I don’t have to confront the absence of the desire to have grace for others within myself. God eventually snags me and I get to have yet another “Come to Jesus” moment. They aren’t fun, but God loves me through the process of learning to share His grace.
When I pray and accept God’s grace and begin allowing that grace to prayerfully overflow into my life, patterns of righteousness develop. It takes a while, but I catch glimpses of the way God sees those people who I have to work at forgiving. Because I stay in prayer I see more clearly, and when my actions are bathed in prayer, I see different results in me. I stop responding in self-centered ways and begin to pray differently. I start asking God to invite me into his plans rather than asking God to bless mine. Then the light of God begins to shine through this cracked pot for the glory of God and I couldn’t be happier for the cracks in what once seemed an “Oh so perfect” façade. Friends, we need to pray together. We not only need to pray together, we need to pray for our church together. We have a business meeting coming up, we have Christmas coming up, and we have many ministry opportunities all around us. If we desire to be truly effective at living into God’s call on us we need to come together to seek God’s heart and hold each other accountable to God’s vision for this church. The only possible way for us to grow well is to have deep roots of prayer connecting us to the God who loves.