Sunday, September 30, 2012

Pentecost 18B

(NB: You listen to the sermon by clicking here)

It’s the kind of headline that boils your blood. Perhaps you saw it. “Parents Get Probation for the Negligent Homicide Death of the Their Son.”

According to the Huffington Post.

“An Oregon couple whose teenaged son died from a burst appendix because they don't believe in modern medicine accepted a plea deal to avoid jail.

“Last December, Austin Sprout became sick with flu-like symptoms. Instead of taking the 16 year old to a doctor, his mother and stepfather chose to pray for his recovery.

“In exchange to pleading guilty on Tuesday to negligent homicide, ‘faith healers’ Russel and Brandi Bellew will be on probation for five years...”

While we rightly look aghast at such abusive parenting, they might turn around and ask us if we believe the promises of scripture, or do we not? After all, they believed that they were following the bible’s guidance.

And the passage that they were following happens to be our second reading for this morning in the Letter of James:

“...are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14Are 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. 15The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16Therefore 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.”

Sounds good doesn’t it? And it is a passage we take seriously because we pray for the sick and the suffering every time we gather. And when I visit people in the hospital, it’s not uncommon for me to take a little jar of olive oil with me so I can anoint the poor soul in the bed. It’s an ancient ritual that began with the people of Israel and adopted by the early church. Olive oil was seen as the lifeblood of society, and therefore a symbol of God’s blessing, and the promise that God will provide all our needs.

But, of course, the fact that I am praying in the hospital - the very heart of modern medicine - puts me at odds with those who would deny the value of doctors and nurses in peoples’ healing.

You’re probably wondering why I’m bringing this up. After all, we’re not a church that denies the power of modern medicine in favour of prayer. I think I’m safe in saying that all of you take your family members to the hospital should they break a bone, come down with a nasty fever, or burst their appendix. At least I HOPE that would be the case...

But I bring this up because this awful story makes me ask: What IS our expectation when we pray? Especially when we pray for tangible things, such as healing for loved ones? What do we expect God to DO?

In our prayers of the people, we get start off and ask God for the big ticket items: world peace, an end to poverty and hunger, the healing of the planet, etc.

Then we get a little more specific and we pray for healing of those on the prayer list. And it’s been my experience that most of the names that make their way on to the church prayer list tend to stay there for a long time.

And faithfully, as pray each week, perhaps never asking why God is taking so long to answer our prayers.

That’s a question that gets asked A LOT in among many thoughtful believers, and also among those who wouldn’t caught in the same city block as church; those especially who think that prayer is, at best, foolishness, that we’re talking to our imaginary friend like little children who can’t breakout of juvenile superstition, and at worst, dangerous, prayer is like that couple who chose prayer over medical help for their son.

Others fire back and defend the validity of prayer, pointing to scientific studies that demonstrate that sick people who are prayed for get better more quickly than those who are not prayed for, even if they don’t know they are being prayed for.

But the next scientific question would be, “Can those results be replicated?” And they answer is, the jury is out of on that one. And they will probably always be out. Because if prayer is meant to be our way of manipulating God, then we are in trouble because God will NOT be manipulated. God is free. We can’t control God with our words. We can only ask.

And sometimes God answers prayer in ways that go deeper than what we ask for.

In my first congregation, on my first day of ministry - literally MY FIRST day on the job as a pastor - I was called into the hospital because a council member’s father-in-law was in the final stages of cancer, and they wanted me to visit with him.
I arrived at the hospital and found the man’s room. Members of the family had already gathered. I read some scripture, then I prayed for the man. I don’t remember what I prayed for, whether it was for his comfort or his healing, I don’t know, but he seemed happy with whatever words I came up with.

The next day I received a phone call from the funeral director asking me if I could do the funeral. Of course, I said “yes.”

And while I was visiting the family to plan the funeral, I found out that this man was actually a member of another church. He’d only found himself in a pew at that church for weddings and funerals, Christmas and Easter, but, still, he was a member of another church.

“Why am I presiding at the funeral when he already has a pastor?” I asked the family.

“He asked for you,” his daughter replied.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because of all the ministers that came to visit him, including his own, you were the only one who prayed for him. And that touched him deeply. After you left, he was finally about to relax, and we saw him with peace in his heart.”

I don’t tell you this story to show you what a great pastor I am (although that IS a fringe benefit of telling you this story...), but because I learned something that day, in my first week on the job, about the tools I have - that WE have - as Christians. And while we may not always - or often see tangible results of our prayers, I’ve come to learn that prayer does SOMETHING that we can’t quite define.

Whenever I feel like giving up on prayer, especially when I feel like God is either absent or has abandoned us to our suffering, I remember that man. I remember that God did something in him over which I had no control. I only had words, words that I can’t even remember. But God used them in those moment, to bring a dying man some peace.
Do you pray?

 If so, what has been your experience of prayer? When you pray, what do you expected to happen? God to do? Have you seen God answer prayer?

If you DON’T pray, why not? That’s not an accusation, its merely a question. Because I guessing that either you haven’t been taught how to pray, or, somehow, you were given the notion prayer doesn’t do anything. And maybe you feel like you’re talking to your imaginary invisible friend.

And if that’s you, then you’re not alone. I think most believers have that experience. But we keep praying even if it makes us look and feel silly. We keep praying doubting anything will come of it. We keep praying even if we aren’t sure that anyone is listening.

We - as a church - as a family of believers, keep praying because that’s what God has asked us to do. We keep praying because prayer means trusting - not knowing - that someone is listening. We keep praying because there have been those moments when prayer has done something so unexpected, that it makes all those other times of silence worth every empty moment.

So, today, when we pray together, think about what you expect God to do. And then, as we pray, think about what God wants YOU to do.

May this be so among us. Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home