Preached July 31, 2011
St. Matthew 5:20–26
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
This morning, the sixth Sunday of Trinity, I bring you almost verbatim a message on Prayer, originally written by the Reverend Dr. Louis Tarsitano for his parish of St. Andrew’s Church, Savannah. This was originally preached on July 30th, exactly eleven years ago yesterday, but the message is timeless. Since that time, Fr. Tarsitano has passed on to join the Church in glory, but what he has to say to us bears much repeating.
“O God, who hast prepared for those who love thee such good things as pass man’s understanding; Pour into our hearts such love toward thee, that we, loving thee above all things, may obtain thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord” (the Collect for the Day).
Many people treat prayer as if it were a religious version of the game show Let’s Make a Deal. The one who prays takes the role of the contestant, and God is assigned the part of Monty Hall, the likable but tricky host. The person praying bargains with God for a series of prizes, but there is always the danger of a “zonk”—of going one deal too far, only to give up all that has been won for a booby prize like a lifetime supply of thumbtacks.
Of course, if what one really needs is thumbtacks, then a lifetime supply of them isn’t really a bad thing. That’s why the idea of prayer as a “game” finally breaks down. In a game, neither the contestant nor the game-show host actually knows what any particular person really needs to live, including himself.
God, on the other hand, is all-powerful and completely self-sufficient. He doesn’t need anything from anyone, and so he can’t be bargained with. He can do anything that he wills, so that no one can force him to do something else. And since he is also all-knowing, God actually does know what every one of his creatures needs to live, including the men and the women that he has created in his own image and likeness. He not only knows what they need, but he is perfectly able and perfectly willing to give them exactly that.
Someone might ask, then, So why bother to pray? If prayer does not change God, what’s the purpose? What such questions fail to take into consideration is that praying to God changes us. As we tell God our troubles, our dreams, our hopes, and our fears, his grace directs us to understanding (or at least accepting) his will, so that very often we will discover that what we are getting already is exactly what we need, and not a “zonk” or a “booby prize” at all. Sometimes, too, when we pray, God’s grace in answering us redirects our lives to the time, to the place, or to the entire way of life that will make us ready to receive all the good things that our Father in heaven has willed for us from before the creation of the world.
Prayer really isn’t about “getting things,” but about talking to the God who made us and who loves us. Our faith (which itself comes from God’s grace) draws us nearer to God, and into a deeper and deeper trust in his complete and utter goodness. We call God “our Father,” as our Lord Jesus Christ taught us to do as his Eternal Father’s adopted children. We open our hearts with the help of God the Holy Ghost, and the more pure our hearts become through our fellowship with the Holy Ghost, the more we speak in a single, united voice with God the Son and God the Holy Ghost to our Father in heaven.
Our fallenness and the fallenness of the world around us make it difficult to be so open, so pure, and so trusting. For us, prayer is often a tedious struggle and a job of hard work, even as prayer is pure joy and the greatest pleasure of all for the unfallen angels and the redeemed saints who gather around our crucified, resurrected, and ascended Lord in light. And yet, the more we pray, crucifying the vanities of this world for the sake of speaking love to our Father in heaven, the closer we come to our own resurrection and to our own ascension into that light which is the glory of the Lord God Almighty.
St. Paul asks us in this morning’s Epistle, “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3). He wants us to know, indeed we need to know, that a new life in Jesus Christ cannot be merely “tacked on” to the fallen life of this world. A “new life” is an altogether “different life,” so that we must die to the old life before we can begin the new in the power of God’s grace. Just as Jesus Christ departed this life for the life of the resurrection by dying on the cross for us, we die with Jesus Christ by bearing the cross that will lift us out of this world’s fallenness to join Jesus Christ in the resurrection.
And so, we pray with Jesus Christ to the Father “Thy will be done,” trusting in the absolute goodness and perfection of that will. We pray to glorify the Father, and to embrace the grace that we need to live for the sake of the Father’s glory and our own salvation. We glorify God by confessing our sins, admitting that his will is greater and better than our own, and that we do evil when we oppose his will. We ask the Father to give us the life that he has chosen for us, and the grace to live it well, submitting to the truth that his choosing will always be better than our own.
Of course, we can always tell the Father what we think we are and what we think we need, and he will always listen to us in love, because it is our ongoing conversation with him that builds us up into the perfect life that he has willed to give to each of us in particular, eternally. But we must never think that God’s listening to every word of our prayers can be turned into some sort of comparative test of the strength of our will against his will. God has described the true case of our prayers through the Prophet Isaiah, as we hear in this morning’s Old Testament Lesson from Morning Prayer:
For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones (Isaiah 57:15).
There is no way to reach that high and holy place where God is, except by contrition and humility. When we have confessed our sins and humbled ourselves before God, in our prayers and in our living, God lifts us up to himself. He revives our hearts so that even if we are sometimes afraid and perplexed in this world, in him we have the sure confidence that we can never die because he has made us to love us, to preserve us, and to keep us forever.
We do not even need to know what or how to pray. God has already made the beginning of prayer for us. As he told Isaiah, “I create the fruit of the lips; Peace, peace to him that is far off, and to him that is near, saith the LORD; and I will heal him” (Isaiah 57:19). Our Father, through his Living Word our Lord Jesus Christ and through the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, has taught us how to pray, and he has given us the sure knowledge that when we pray he will give us peace and heal us at the last.
When we hold our Bibles and our Prayer Books in our hands, we are holding a gift of prayer. We are holding the summary of the words of prayer that God has given us over almost four thousand years, since the day that he first called the Patriarch Abraham into the intimacy of prayer and eternal life. All we need to do is to open these book and to begin on any page, and we are at once praying with the Incarnate Son of God and with two hundred generations of saints.
Our beginning with these ancient words of prayer will train our hearts, our minds, and our souls to pray in words of their own, adding glory upon glory in praise of Almighty God. And the more that we pray, the more we will see that God has prepared for us such good things as pass any mortal man’s understanding. The more that we pray, the more God’s grace will open our hearts to be flooded with his love, so that we will love him above all things and trust in him alone. And the more that we pray, love, and trust, the more God will prove by the excellence of his promises and by the perfection of their keeping that nothing we can desire is as great as what he has done for us and is doing in his Son Jesus Christ our Lord. All we can add is our “Amen,” the Hebrew word that means “Let this be so.” Let it be so that God’s will is our prayers and that God’s will is their answer, and we will pray aright, and we will be blessed indeed.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.