Sermon for July 24, 2022, 7 Pentecost (Year C): Prayer is intervention (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
In my previous life, I used to work as a Senior Psychologist at Napa State Hospital. One of the duties of my job was to supervise Psychology Interns. My supervisory style was a bit different than that of other senior psychologists. For example, when one of my students seemed to be having trouble understanding a point, instead of sending them home to re-read their textbook, I would provide pithy quotes and suggest they needlepoint them and hang them up in their office. That’s what I did when one particular intern told me she didn’t believe in psychological assessment. She didn’t see the point of spending all of her time diagnosing people when she could just start treating them. Well. Being an assessment supervisor, I did not take kindly to this – but (to her surprise) I did not respond with a lecture. Instead, I simply said, “Assessment is intervention.”
We spend the time to assess people’s issues properly so we can treat them correctly. I don’t know about you, but I hate it when I go to the doctor and leave with the feeling that she has no actual idea what’s wrong with me. Instead of running tests, she prescribes the medication most likely to help and, if it doesn’t work, tries something else. Insurance companies may think that this is a good way to manage medical costs, but it doesn’t seem so fabulous when you still feel sick after 10 days on an antibiotic you didn’t need. It is well-worth the time to get a handle on the situation- to figure out what is needed and how to go about doing it -before leaping into action. On the other hand, assessment that does not provide direction for the work really is a waste of time.
Prayer works the same way. We all know that we are supposed to pray – and we are happy to take requests. My Facebook page is regularly peppered with pleas for what we call “intercessory prayer” -prayers for health, comfort, and safety - sometimes on our own behalf and sometimes for other people. And if we want to say something that sounds better than, “Help Paula feel better,” well then, God bless The Episcopal Church! We have a prayer for everything.
But lately there has been something of a backlash against prayer – largely because it’s gotten a reputation for being just like assessment for its own sake. People complain that offering our thoughts and prayers are meaningless unless they’re accompanied by action. I certainly think that can be the case, but I don’t think the problem is with prayer itself. It’s more about how we do it – and what we expect to gain from it. Maybe that’s why many of us don’t do a lot of praying - because we think we don’t know how. Like the disciples, we one someone to give us the perfect prayer “formula” – the one that will make God sit up and take notice. The one that will get God to answer.
Perhaps we should be careful what we wish for because God always answers prayers- just not necessarily in the way we want. Look at poor Hosea. He got a lot of attention from God but Hosea’s multiple interactions with God are anything but comforting and supportive. That’s because the God who speaks to Hosea is angry and hurt. Hosea’s people have been ungrateful and unfaithful and God reacts like a wounded lover; this God takes the things we do personally.
This idea scares us. As much as we angrily mutter about what kind of God would allow the suffering we see in the world, we don’t actually try to find out, intellectually debating each other instead of checking in with God about it. We prefer assuming a stance of spiritual politeness by using formalized and often antiquated prayers to actually revealing the nasty, messy emotions roiling inside us. It is much easier to think of a distant, intimidating God who will forgive our “trespasses” than make ourselves vulnerable to a candid cherished confidant who will hold our feet to the fire as we actively struggle with our pain, anger, resentment and jealousy. We separate ourselves from God by saying our prayers with words that have no meaning or resonance for us. We do it all the time by taking the words that Jesus used to teach his disciples about the nature of God and turning them into a formula for avoiding true engagement with God.
When Jesus’s disciples asked him to teach them how to pray, they were not asking him to create a ritual. They came from a tradition that was already rich with specified daily prayers. They wanted Jesus to tell them how to speak to God in the same way Jesus did - with familiarity, honesty, and love. So Jesus tells him to start the same way psychologists do when they are trying to figure out what’s going on with someone: establish a relationship with God. Identify yourselves as God’s children, reminding God that she has promised to listen to us. Make sure to respect God’s holiness and thank God for making it possible for us to be a part of God’s beloved community. Keep the intercessions simple by only asking God for the three things you need: food, forgiveness, and the opportunity to be faithful to God- because that’s what it means not to be brought to the time of trial - not that our lives will be free from bad things, from evil. Rather, we are asking God not to put us into situations where we might betray him. Above all, assume that God will give us what we need. “Knock and the door will be opened” - but we have to knock and we have to mean it.
Jesus suggests that God knows when we are faking it- and God doesn’t like it. When we choose empty, formulaic prayer over authentic engagement with God, we cheat ourselves of true forgiveness and understanding. As writer Anne Lamott puts it, “My belief is that when you're telling the truth, you're close to God. If you say to God, ‘I am exhausted and depressed beyond words, and I don't like You at all right now, and I recoil from most people who believe in You,’ that might be the most honest thing you've ever said. If you told me you had said to God, ‘It is all hopeless, and I don't have a clue if You exist, but I could use a hand,’ it would almost bring tears to my eyes, tears of pride in you, for the courage it takes to get real-really real. It would make me want to sit next to you at the dinner table.”
Of course it would - and that’s the kind of honesty that makes God want to sit next to you too - because God wants nothing more than to spend time with us, but not in meaningless, half-hearted, one-sided conversation. Offering our rote thanks, perfunctory praise, and robotic requests, rapidly followed by a hasty “Amen” is less than inviting. Nothing in scripture suggests that God is happier when we demonstrate dignity and restraint in our interactions with them. Over and over in scripture we see that those who are closest to our Lord are those who are honest enough to admit their helplessness. We must stop thinking that God’s love depends on what we do. We have to give up the human idea that what we eat or drink or how we look or speak or our power or wealth matter to God at all. In order for our prayers to be answered –in order for our prayers to work – we must make ourselves vulnerable, letting go of our dignity and wantonly throwing ourselves on the mercy of the God who loves us no matter what.
Imagine what might happen if we all prayed with both confidence and reckless abandon. Imagine what it would be like to live your life through Christ and with Christ and in Christ with the passion of Christ. And imagine what it would be like to meet one another in that holy space, seeing each person through the eyes of a demanding, loving, forgiving God who enables us to do anything, as long as we do it together. Then mercy and truth will meet and righteousness and peace will kiss. That is powerful intervention. So pray, my friends, pray with all your might, and God will answer. AMEN.