Humble Servants Pray
St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 10th Sunday after Trinity
August 25, 2019
“Let thy merciful ears, O Lord, be open to the prayers of thy humble servants; and, that they may obtain their petitions, make them to ask such things as shall please thee.”
ALL PRAYERS ARE ANSWERED. Never let the silence of heaven, the unmoved pieces on your game board, the unrelenting tide of human malfeasance and climate change give you the wrong impression. You prayed. God heard. He also answered. But what was His answer?
We have heard that God answers in three ways: Yes, No, and Wait a bit. We might score our prayers successful, but only if we get answer #1. But God’s Yes may be a huge mistake on our part, an object lesson on His part that we should be careful what we ask for. If you ever go back to a high school reunion and see the former prom queen, a girl you dreamed about, fantasized saying silly things to, in your dreams, and maybe offered a fool’s prayers, but who you now find is an overdone, foul mouthed, over the hill frightening witch with a smoker’s voice. You see an illustration of why God sometimes shows mercy in saying No. His Yes may be the only way you’ll ever learn what things to want, and what things you should never choose.
All prayers are answered. But the answer is tempered by the manner of life, the character, the attitude, and above all, the humility of those asking. Clarence Day Sr., the imperious, late 19th century central figure in Life with Father, was fretting over the illness of his wife and stamped around the front hall shouting at God to “get her up and make her better, I tell you! I demand you to heal her, I say!” We might not exactly shout orders at God in prayer, but what we pray may be salted with exasperation at God being so slow, veiled accusation at letting things come to such a pass, disappointment with Him not being on the ball to make things right for you, and so on. Our prayers can sound like the mail call for a congressman, applying for favors, demanding rights, seeking influence from higher up, and even bribing Him with promised behaviors. Do this for me and I will vote for you next time.
God is not mocked. Nor is He entreated by silly promises, vows, threats or accusations. Try being God for one hour, one minute, one split second. What is heaven’s view of the switchboard of prayers? If we were to hear for just a moment that incoming stream of human misery, inane ranting, feigned obeisance, courtroom defense, and applications for better treatment, clemency, pardon, and second chances—we might just understand. God has a lot to deal with in us. And none of these affronteries are strange to us: we’ve prayed stupidly ourselves. Why would He listen to such drivel?
And yet He does. All prayers are answered. Hyper-Calvinism is the religious system some have adopted with the view of establishing God’s ultimate supremacy and sovereignty, as they say it, so that His will can never be thwarted or turned aside by anything we say, do or become. He is immutable, unchanging. His will is from before all creation, and we are the product of it. How greatly we are fallen may be our fault – somehow – but what we become, if lucky enough to be foreordained and predestined, is all due to His grace and design. Of the many problems that this belief leaves unresolved is that of prayer. What good is it? If God has already decided all things and no one may turn His sovereign will in any way, then it’s useless, in fact, it’s the proudest cheek for anyone to ask God to make one brushstroke change in His masterpiece. Leave it alone. He’s already determined every outcome. Well, besides the billions of unsaved and unsavable souls that God is the author of, this proves the inadequacy of that religious theory. Jesus, Hannah, Moses, Abraham, Sarah, David, Mary, Paul, James and John prayed. They prayed, and their prayers were heard and God said Yes. And He said No.
To Jesus, God the Father said No. It was the night He was betrayed, and Jesus was feeling His humanity to the full in anticipation of what lay ahead for Him. Quite understandably, He feared the pain of it. Not just brutal torture, cruel execution and human misjudgment, but separation from His Father and the bearing of all human iniquity on His frail human flesh to the grave: He shuttered at it and asked, if it be the Father’s will, to let that cup pass by Him. Then, very properly, He let His Father choose: Thy will be done. God said No.
It's been suggested to me, and I favor the idea, that God doesn’t say No so much as He says, “I have something even better for you.” God’s something better for Jesus was to strengthen Him in the crucifixion, and see Him through His death, all the way to resurrection, for the salvation of the world. Better, much better. When God says No, you may thank Him. You will someday thank Him, I assure you.
The very act of praying, if done well, is to place ourselves beneath the feet of one higher than we are, acknowledging His supreme ability to grant us our desire, and show Him our need. Give us this day our daily bread, taught Jesus on how to pray. Even simple needs are not too low or unimportant for us to lift up in prayer. But with humility. “God, I wanted pepperoni, not just cheese!” is a rather poor prayer, not even prayer at all. And prayer that is wise, appropriate, and courageous may allow God to fully disarrange your life in a way that pleases Him and disturbs you completely. The world explorer, Sir Francis Drake, wrote a prayer, in the voice of the sea captain who discovered our continent’s west coast.
“Disturb us, Lord, when We are too well pleased with ourselves, When our dreams have come true Because we have dreamed too little, When we arrived safely Because we sailed too close to the shore. Disturb us, Lord, when With the abundance of things we possess We have lost our thirst For the waters of life; Having fallen in love with life, We have ceased to dream of eternity And in our efforts to build a new earth, We have allowed our vision Of the new Heaven to dim. Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, To venture on wider seas Where storms will show your mastery; Where losing sight of land, We shall find the stars. We ask You to push back The horizons of our hopes; And to push into the future In strength, courage, hope, and love.” Sir Francis Drake, c. 1577
Heaven answers all prayers. It may be Yes, and there are countless examples where the Yes was evident. A healing where no chance was given by medical art. The wind dying down and reversing as the Camp Fire reached the outskirts of Chico. The success of D-Day on the Normandy beaches. The falling down of the Berlin Wall. That none of us has starved though we ran through all our money and food pantry. None of us starved. Do you know how amazing that is?
Prayer is both a private and semi-public matter. It’s semi-public because we pray enmasse in church, together with likeminded souls, the prayers of our liturgy, these wonderful prayers that put it so well, what we all need to say to God, and to ask what we all need from Him. Prayers are seldom fully public. An invocation at the opening of congress or the supreme court; a prayer for the repose of someone at their funeral; a public grace for a meal. But in most things, we are careful not to make our prayers public, in keeping with our Lord’s injunction. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” Matt 6:1-2
Humble must our prayers be. Humility is not to grovel. It’s not to say bad things of ourselves. Silly prayers may begin, “God, I know you’re too busy for me, and I don’t deserve this, so please don’t be angry with me for asking…” That’s a waste of time, and in actuality, untrue. Were it true, you should shut up. Humility sees things the way they really are. Jesus was ultimately humble, and sought His Father in prayer for hours, and still knew Himself to be God the Son, and He said so. Who are we, then, to pray to God? We are obedient, that’s what, for Jesus taught us to pray, to ask, to seek, to knock. James wrote that we may not receive our requests because they are not prayed for correctly. But we should pray, nevertheless.
St. Therese of Lisieux, a 19th century French nun, prayed,
“O Jesus! When You were a Pilgrim on earth, You said: “Learn of Me for I am gentle and humble of heart and you will find rest for your souls.” O Mighty Monarch of Heaven, yes, my souls finds rest in seeing You, clothed in the form and nature of a slave, humbling Yourself to wash the feet of Your apostles. I recall Your words that teach me how to practice humility: “I have given you an example so that you may do what I have done. The disciple is not greater than the Master … If you understand this, happy are you if you put them into practice.” … You know my weakness, Lord. Every morning I make a resolution to practice humility and in the evening I recognize that I have committed again many faults of pride. Since You can do everything, deign to bring to birth in my soul the virtue I desire. O Jesus, gentle and humble of heart, make my heart like Yours!”
What are your prayers? Knowing that God answers them all, are you brave enough to pray? It takes courage when you know that the Creator of the universe is listening and hears your words, sees your heart, knows your thoughts, reads your motivations, sees all ends and knows how His answer will affect you. Rather than pre-design and destine all things, He is more sovereign still, creating in us His divine image and likeness, giving us freedom to choose, to love, to obey, to answer His prayer, if you will, that our hearts be His and our lives be lived to His glory. If He is brave enough, this Creator of all things, to ask us this favor, our decision, our choice, to please Him: might we be brave enough to share our desires with Him and to humbly, reverently, allow Him the wisdom to sort out the consequences, which range far beyond our vision and determine so many outcomes we may never imagine. And we allow Him to say Yes, I have something better, or Wait a bit.
That last answer, Wait a bit, frustrates me. I admit it. I wish for instant miracles, not those that play out over years. And years. And I’m never sure if it was actually No, but I just heard wait a bit. Guess what I’m learning? … Did I hear you say, Patience? Patients are people in the hospital! Ach! I want it now. Oh well. Patience. Humility. I get it. Wait a bit.
Perfect prayer doesn’t even begin with us. Time and again in the Scriptures, we see someone first moved by the Holy Spirit to pray. All Scripture is written that way. It’s God’s move first. He inspires the prayer. It comes from the Father, through the Spirit, into our spirits, up to our mind and heart, gets us to pray, gives us the request, is handed to God’s care and timing, through His Son, Christ Jesus, our mediator and our advocate, who presents our humble prayer to His Father, who sees the circuit come fully back to Him and then He answers, of course, Yes. We are caught up in the life of the Trinity. This is what Jesus meant by our praying in His Name prayers that must receive God’s approval.
All prayers are answered. Do you wait to hear the answer? Our prayers are so like the phone call from that impossible relative who rings you up and starts yacking and never gives you a moment to get in a word. Blah, blah, blah, ok bye! Click. Are the prayers we offer God like our personal litany, Do this, do that, do the other, Amen. Click? Or do we wait to hear what we might pray, feel His presence, give Him the chance to speak, through His Word, through prayer, through the silence?
Next Sunday, we offer a brief, ancient, biblical approach to spiritual formation called Lectio Divina, where the words of scripture breathe through our spirits whatever God may wish to convey to us. It’s prayer much more than study. And it’s hearing more than speaking. You want to come to this. All prayers are answered. So pray, and let God answer.
LET thy merciful ears, O Lord, be open to the prayers of thy humble servants; and, that they may obtain their petitions, make them to ask such things as shall please thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.