Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sermon: Pray Without Ceasing

A sermon by Rev. Keenan Kelsey of Noe Valley Ministry, Presbyterian Church, San Francisco, California, U.S.A., given February 20, 2005 (source link here).

Thessalonians 5:14-24
And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil. May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.


When I think of the phrase, Pray Ceaselessly, Pray without Ceasing, I think of Naomi Anna Greenleaf. Many of you know her – a former NVM member who lives in southern California, and visits occasionally. She writes us a letter each month. For a woman who feels like prayer is often an empty exercise for her, she is the most faithful and loving and determined pray-er I know! Here is an excerpt from her last letter to us...

I’m sure you’ve heard me complain over and again about my barren spiritual life, how in prayer and meditation I never hear anything by the rattle-clatter of my own mind, how I can’t seem to find the voice of God. Well, that all changed as I was repeating the Jesus prayer to my self. (I have undertaken the discipline of constant prayer that is, repeating a short prayer over and over as I go about my daily business. The Jesus Prayer has two forms: long form: “O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Short form: “O Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy.” I use the short form.) As I was repeating the prayer, the thought came to me to pay closer attention to it. So I tried to imagine Jesus listening to me as I prayed. As I did so, I suddenly became very aware of my physical body. This might not seem remarkable to you, but I happen to be a person who lives “in the head” most of the time, and rarely do I feel my body…So this new sensation gave me a lot of joy…I thought to myself, “What a surprise! Is this what it’s like to contact Christ, am I finally learning to pray?” And I was very pleased and happy and continued praying. Then came a distraction, a temptation.”

Here Naomi Anna describes a desire to taste a Christmas gift of homemade marmalade. She got all involved in trying to get the top off “To make a long story short, I finally got the jar open and tasted the marmalade and then put it away. Then I tried to go back to my prayer. Nothing happened. I couldn’t get connected. “My God” I thought, “What have I done? Have I traded Christ for a spoonful of marmalade?” Well I know for a fact that Christ would not abandon me just because I was straying, It was I who had abandoned him. The connection was still very tender…I felt sure if I was patient, persevering, I would get the feeling back. But that was two weeks ago. But do you want to know something? As I was sitting here, writing this letter to you, the feeling started to come back…Maybe it’s true that our connections with one another can lead us to God. Maybe it’s high time I forgive myself, and get back to praying…”

"Pray ceaselessly" says Paul. This is the center phrase of Paul’s final instruction in his first letter to the church in Thessalonica. This was the capital city in Macedonia, a bustling seaport, with a new church largely gentile in membership. He wrote to give the new converts both instruction and encouragement in their trials. And he reminds them, Pray without ceasing.

Indeed, this is the center of Paul’s own theology, Paul’s way of being in the world. Every letter he wrote begins with thanksgiving and prayer for the church members and their work. He begins this letter to Thessalonians: “We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers.”

Paul exhorts prayer in almost every epistle – in Romans: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” In First Corinthians: “What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also.” In Ephesians: “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.” In Colossians: “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray for us as well that God will open to us a door for the word, that we may declare the mystery of Christ…” To the Philippians: “My prayer for you is that you will have still more love - a love that is full of knowledge and wise insight.” And my very favorite expression of prayer, again in Romans: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

Sighs too deep for words.

Other people have used other words to describe this practice to which we are called, this discipline, this attitude, which is meant to hold, inform, sanctify, enrich, guide our lives. Karl Rahner said, “When we are in awe and love, in God’s presence, we are praying.”

Our very reformed John Calvin said, “Prayer is my flaming heart, as I offer it to God.”

Thomas Merton wrote: “The great thing in prayer is not to pray, but to go directly to God... at the very root of your existence, you are inconstant and immediate contact with the infinite power of God... Prayer is the movement of trust, of gratitude, of adoration, or of sorrow, that places us before God, seeing both God and ourselves in the light of God’s infinite truth, and moves us to ask God for the mercy, the spiritual strength, the material help, that we all need."

When asked about prayer, Albert Einstein said that..."the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mystery.”

And none other than African American Opera Diva Marian Anderson said, “Prayer begins where human capacity ends.” Prayer begins where human capacity ends.”

Prayer is our response to God’s initiative. It is dialogue rather than monologue.

One of the reasons Jesus prayed confidently was because He saw prayer as friendship with God. For me, prayer is intimacy with God -- some sort of divine/human dynamic that makes a difference, a way through my fears, a way to claim my faith. My current way of praying constantly is the recurring phrase, “Don’t leave me now, God!”

I have learned the hard way that prayer is not a magical means by which we get God to do what we want. I imagine a major league baseball pitcher who prays that God will help him "get ‘em out"… and a player on an opposing team who prays that God will help him "get a hit.” How confusing this must be to God when they face each other!

Nor is there a single special way to pray that guarantees the answer or action we want. In a Peanuts cartoon, Charlie Brown is kneeling beside his bed for prayer. Suddenly he says to Lucy, "I think I’ve made a new theological discovery, a real breakthrough. If you hold your hands upside down, you get the opposite of what you pray for."

Prayer is more of an inner openness to God that allows divine power to be released in us. Ultimately, perhaps, the power of prayer is not that we succeed in changing God, but that God succeeds in changing us.

I knew young man who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s Disease, or ALS. I suppose that this is one of the most debilitating illnesses known. Over a period of time, all of the muscles of the body become useless. But, the mind remains clear and sharp - trapped in a body that cannot move.

Of course, this man reacted the way you or I would expect. He was bitter and angry at what was happening to him. When he did pray, his prayers were questions that asked, "Why me, God? Why is this happening to me?" He prayed angry tirades, cursing God ... cursing his illness. And who could blame him? He could no longer care for himself. He could no longer sit up without assistance.

After he finished his angry tirade his pastor told him, "Don’t worry! You didn’t shock me or God." A serious look crossed his face and he said, "I’ve tried to pray. I’ve asked God to cure me, but I keep getting worse."

"Perhaps," the pastor said, "you are praying the wrong prayer. The promise of God is not that he will magically remove our problems but that he will give us strength in the midst of our problems. Why don’t you start praying for strength to deal with your illness and strength to enjoy the life you have?"

I would be lying if I said change was immediate. But, gradually a change took place. The bitterness and anger he felt gave way to acceptance. But, the surprise was that he saw an avenue of ministry. With a pencil between his teeth, he began typing out notes to people who were going through problems. They were not long, just short, simple notes telling others that someone was thinking about them and praying for them. Shortly before his illness claimed his life, he told one of the members of his family, "I have enjoyed my life to the end."

Prayer is being in communion with God, not something to be used when needs arise. Prayer is being in relationship so that God can speak to us. Prayer is finding peace in the midst of troubles, calm in the midst of calamity, and love in the midst of our loneliness.

Prayer requires trust, faith in this magnificent yet intimate God. And prayer always makes a difference, sometimes subtle sometimes dramatic. Our Hebrew reading was about Abram and Sarai and Terah before them; they were people of prayer, people of faith. They left behind all they knew to venture out into the unknown. They risked everything to follow a God they hardly knew. As our ancestors in the faith, Abraham and Sarah leave us a legacy of prayer and faith that is daring and action-filled. This is the heritage from which we spring -- to dare to leave barrenness behind, to risk the unknown, to live faith as a verb, to trust in promises fulfilled. The God who makes promises is a responder to prayers, a giver of gifts that are free to those willing to receive them in faith.

Today, let us pray. Let us begin where Paul begins each letter, probably each day. Let us begin where Jesus always seemed to begin every venture and effort, with prayer. It is one of the Lenten disciplines espoused by the religious for years. But it is more than just a discipline. It is a way of life.

Soon we will call up three prayer teams, who will go to the far corners and offer themselves to pray with and for you. They will serve as a vehicle, a way to speak and enhance your own prayers as they are offered to God. They will then offer you an anointing. You also have prayer crosses in your bulletins. There are pens at the back, you are asked to write your deepest desires in prayer and place them on our Lenten cross.

And finally, the offering plates are here on the communion table. We ask you to bring forward offerings, tithes, gifts, and leave them with your own sense of thanksgiving, and a prayer for what they might accomplish in the world.

And as you pray, remember Naomi Anna. She would tell you she is living proof that miracles happen, through prayer. Don’t let her down!

AMEN

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