Pentecost 9 August 2, 2009

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15                                                          

John 6:26-35                                                                       

On my first Sunday as rector of St. Charles’ Church, the congregation produced a lavish coffee hour – tables laden with sandwiches and pastries, cheeses and crackers. Some of my little nephews and nieces were visiting for the special celebration. “This is cool!” one of them pronounced. “Let’s go to this church.”

We do come to church to be fed, but of course not with the doughnut holes of coffee hour, nice as they are. We come to be fed with the bread of life, conveyed to us in the word of God and in the sacraments. Last Sunday in our summer series on worship, Bishop Walmsley talked about how we’re fed by the word. Today I want to reflect a little with you about our response to that feeding, the Prayers of the People, and about our prayer here in church generally – what is called our “common prayer,” because we do it together, in common.

 

There’s a game that’s played sometimes in youth groups or other “mixer” situations. I want you to imagine that we’re playing it here this morning. People are seated in a circle, as we are. We have a ball of yarn (this is usually played with rainbow-colored yarn). One person holds onto the end of the yarn and tosses the ball across the circle to someone else. In the game as it’s usually played, that person has to introduce him or herself, but in our version the person doing the tossing has to pray for the person to whom the yarn ball is tossed.

That receiver in turn tosses the ball on to someone else, holding onto the yarn as it goes, praying for them. Soon we have a spider web net of yarn, going back and forth and around the circle, linking all of us together, people praying for one another. We’ll say a little bit more in a moment about what that praying consists of, but imagine another wrinkle in the game. Imagine there’s a big hook dropping down out of the skylight above us, and each time we toss the ball of yarn it has to go over this hook before it comes back down to the person we’ve tossed it to. The hook represents God in our game of prayer. We don’t just pray back and forth among ourselves; each toss of prayer also passes through or involves God.

And now imagine a further wrinkle in the game. We don’t just toss the yarn among ourselves; we also toss it to a much wider circle: lonely service men and women in Afghanistan; a young man named Sean whom many of us knew, tragically killed in a motorcycle accident last week down the road from my house; difficult-to-pronounce dioceses in the Anglican Communion; sick relatives and friends and friends of friends; people celebrating birthdays and anniversaries; public officials; “causes” that are linked to the coming of God’s kingdom, like the Millennium Development Goals. They are all part of our web of rainbow colored yarn, our web of Prayers of the People.

What we are doing here, as Bishop Walmsley noted in his original outline of this sermon series, is passing on the bread of life that we received through the word of God, the Scripture readings and homiletic reflection on them. We put the Prayers of the People after the word of God in the liturgy, because the word breaks us open. The readings this morning are an excellent example. They’re about how selfish and narrowly focused on material food we are, and about how much wider and deeper God is. They contrast the bread that perishes, which we spend so much time pursuing, with the bread of eternal life. We listen to them, and we realize they’re talking about us, and it changes our perspective. It makes us look on things more as God sees them, more in the perspective of Jesus.

What is it that we do when we pray like this? First, let me say that it isn’t just the Prayers of the People that are “prayer” in the liturgy. The whole service is, from the moment we walk through the doors here on Sunday morning until we leave. This is a special environment, a place set apart, open to God (that’s why it’s so nice to have the cupola above our worship space, admitting light down into our assembly). This is holy ground. And at the most basic level, what we are doing in prayer is opening ourselves to this God dimension. When we pray for someone else, we are “lifting them up,” putting ourselves in their place, trying to see and hold them as God does. That can be a powerful thing, especially when we pray, as Jesus asks us to do, for our enemies, those who have hurt us.

Prayer is a strange thing, although all people do it (only many of them not consciously). It is the working of our minds, of our hearts, even of our bodies – the yearning, the hoping, the asking, the dreaming, the apologizing. It becomes real prayer when it slows down enough and becomes intentional enough to make room for God – for something (Someone) to come back to us, whether in words, insights, feelings, thoughts. That takes time. It doesn’t always happen. Even the saints spend much more time waiting in prayer, wanting to pray, than they actually realize in “ah hah!” mountaintop experiences of prayer. But over the long haul, over a life time, prayer works. It transforms, not just us, but the world.

Think back to that imaginary spider web of rainbow colored yarn. We know from biology and physics that everything is in fact connected with everything else, everything influences everything else – the “butterfly effect.” One way to think of prayer is that it is about helping us become aware of our connectedness, and to cooperate with, rather than work against, it. As a book I’ve been reading puts it,

Devotion to the “creator/lord” today should be understood as consisting in the attempt to live in rapport with the movements of life and history that provide the actual context of human existence; it is to attempt to be in tune with what we discern as the nature of things.*

The Prayers of the People are what are called intercessory prayer, meaning prayer for others, not for ourselves. It’s interesting that the only prayer for ourselves in the Eucharist is the Confession of Sin – a prayer apologizing for being so self-centered.

In our self-seeking, self-serving world, what we do here on Sunday morning is very unusual, even weird. Most people can’t be bothered with it. Most people, after a few Sundays, a few months, a few years, wander off – seeking a better coffee hour, the bread of the world. But Jesus tells us, and tells us truly, that that bread will always perish, while those who come to him will never be hungry, those who believe in him will never be thirsty. It is his life and his love, his Body and Blood, that we share in our prayer.

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*Gordon D. Kaufman, “Reconstructing the Concept of God: De-reifying the Anthropomorphisms,” in Sarah Coakley and David A. Palin, eds., The Making and Remaking of Christian Doctrine, pp. 96, 102 (1993), quoted in Howard Lesnick, “Moral Disagreement in a Culture of Certainty,” in Law and Democracy in the Empire of Force, H. Jefferson Powell and James Boyd White, eds. (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2009) p. 142 at n. 37.

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