We’re in a series of readings from the Gospel of Luke right now where Jesus tells some of his most challenging parables, trying to wake us up and force us to question our assumptions, and today’s is certainly one of them. It’s always tempting to a preacher to kind of try and solve the problems and smooth things over. But that’s a temptation. A preacher’s job is not to helpfully explain stuff; a preacher’s job is to proclaim the Word of God. So as a way of resisting temptation, I am going to preach, instead, on the epistle reading.
Today’s epistle from I Timothy says: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions.” Pray in all kinds of ways, it says, not just for leaders, but for everyone. Pray in all kinds of ways.
If you look through the rest of this reading on the back of your insert, you see all sorts of evidence of how God desires to do his people good. It mentions how he wants everyone to be saved, how he wants everyone to enter into the truth. It mentions how God came in Jesus Christ as a mediator, a go-between, to bridge the gap between us and God, and to offer himself as a ransom to set us free. It notes how what Jesus did has been attested – i.e. there were witnesses. How it all happened just at the right time. And how God even chose someone, the author himself, to make sure that us Gentiles got in on the new way of knowing and living in God that Jesus offers.
So I Timothy points out that God’s plans for his people are positive. God has chosen to do us good and to reveal the truth to us. And right there is the point at which people often ask: If God has already chosen what to do for us, why do we need to pray? Hasn’t he made up his mind? What difference would praying or not praying make? So let’s look at that question. I’ll tell you two differences it makes. First, prayer is the most common mechanism through which God delivers the good things he wants to give us and his world. Second, far more important to God than what he wants to do is his relationship with you, and by getting you to pray, he can get you to deepen your relationship with him. That’s the most precious jewel there is in this life.
Let’s unpack those a little. So, first: prayer is the most common mechanism through which God delivers the good things he wants to give us and his world. Let’s say you’re praying for someone you know to come to the Blessing of Pets. It’s very easy to raise objections like “Why bother praying for that? If it’s God’s will for that person to come to the Blessing of Pets, he can do that without you asking him.” Ah, but the chances are that what God’s will is, is to bring that person to the Blessing of Pets in answer to your prayers.
This is how God works most commonly among Christians -- not in isolation, but with and through his people. Once you are in Christ, he confers on you the dignity of getting to cooperate with him in bringing his will into the world. Of course he could do it alone. He doesn’t have to let you get involved. He didn’t have to create a universe, either. He’s just lavish and open that way.
Now that lavishness and openness of letting us be part of the delivery mechanism of God’s will means that God is taking a great risk. If he wants to do things in answer to our prayers, he is taking a risk. Why? Because more often than not, we don’t pray. We watch the Cubs or go early to the family dinner or endlessly scroll through Twitter; we don’t put ourselves in the position God wants us to of getting face to face with him in prayer. So it’s a risk for him, to let his work in part depend on our prayers, but God is no stranger to risk. He took a risk in becoming a helpless babe in a manger; he takes a risk in becoming bread in the Eucharist. The baby could have been killed. The bread can be dropped in the mud and profaned. But God takes that risk because his priority is neither efficiency, nor control. His priority is drawing you in.
If you offer God a channel to work through by actually giving time to prayer, he will work through it according to his will, and in the process you will deepen your intimacy with him. That’s the second part. In a sense, the whole mysterious enterprise is his technique for drawing you in. He loves you, and he wants you to love him the way you can only love someone after you have grown to know them over time. He wants you to spend time with him. And as you do, you will come to know him better, and because of that you will love him more, and because of that you will serve him more often and more joyously. If you resist prayer – well, you won’t know him any better, and you won’t fall deeper in love with him, and you won’t become a truer servant. But that was the risk God took in inventing prayer in the first place. He could have made us automatons. But he didn’t. He made us creatures who are perfectly free to scorn and ignore him. Perfectly free not to pray. Perfectly free not to act.
God wants all kinds of good things for you and for Emmanuel parish. But because of the gamble he takes of letting some of his work depend on you, as a way to try and get you to choose him freely and come to him in prayer, many of those good things will happen only if you both pray and act. You, and Emmanuel, will never be all that God hopes for if we don’t each both pray and act. Knowing this parish and the Episcopal church as I do, I don’t think many of us are likely to invest so much time in prayer that we never get around to acting. But we are constitutionally prone to acting without praying. I forget and do it myself more often than I’d like to admit. And the problem is that when you just act without having that constant background music of prayer, you’ll get a pale spiritless shadow of the good things God wanted to give you. I am convinced a lot of Episcopalians don’t believe that, but it’s really true.
Now some of you know all this already. You have regular routines which put you face to face with God day in day out, and you know what it means to come to love him more and thus desire to serve him more. Maybe you come to the Daily Office or read it on your phone. Maybe you do contemplative prayer of one kind of another. I know some of you out there are living this way, and I’m not telling you anything in this sermon that isn’t already part of your life.
But I also know that others of you don’t pray with much regularity other than in church. You might throw a sentence or two in God’s direction when your favorite team is losing, or read a prayer at Thanksgiving dinner, but day in day out it’s not part of your routine. One way to tell might be this: do you know your answer to the question “how do you normally pray?” If you have a response to that already, just keep doing it. Thank you for doing it. Thank you for seeking God and letting him into your daily life. None of us will ever know how much your 10 minutes in the morning or your quiet pause at lunch or your recitation of Evening Prayer has changed things here at Emmanuel. Thank you for praying. As your rector, it means the world to me.
So if you know your answer to the question “How do you normally pray?” just keep doing it. If you’re not sure, here’s what I want you to do this week. The epistle says to pray in all kinds of ways: supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings. But I’m just going to pick one way, one very simple way anyone can do as long as they actually do want to come into contact with God. Some of you may not want that, and so you won’t try this, I realize. But for those of you who are willing to try out one answer to how do you normally pray, here’s what I want you to do.
This week, before you get out of bed, before any of the rest of the world comes rushing in on you, before you allow any intake of text messages or news reports or playlists or TV, lie there in silence and turn your mind and heart to Jesus, and pray the simple phrase that has supported countless millions in knowing him: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Say it directly to him as a real person. You might want to repeat it say 10 times, calmly, lying there in bed. Start your day by turning to the one who gave you the day in the first place. Set your attitude there: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
You will almost certainly forget to do it at least one day; that’s fine. Whenever you remember just stop and say, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Give yourself the oasis of his loving presence in the middle of your day. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Say it to him. He is with you. You may even like the taste of his mercy so much you decide to pray it again as you’re falling asleep. That’s fine too.
So. We know from this passage in I Timothy that God wants to give you good things in response to your prayer. And even better than that, he wants to use your prayer to usher you into that deep connection with him that Jesus has made available through his Cross and Resurrection. Just praying, just being in his presence and loving him, will probably do you more good than any thing God may give as an answer, because he loves us. When we pray, we find out how much. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.