Sunday, August 16, 2020

Sermon: “Make a Joyful Noise: What A Friend We Have In Jesus” ("Thoughts & Prayers"), Matthew 15:21-28 (August 16, 2020)


As people of faith, we believe in the power of prayer. We believe that prayer is a gift, a way for us to connect with the divine and to be heard in our petitions. Today’s hymn, “What A Friend We Have In Jesus”, describes prayer in glowing terms, making it sound downright miraculous—any pain, no matter how profound; any sorrow, no matter how deep; any burden, no matter how heavy, evaporates into thin air if we just bring it to Jesus in prayer. Ask, and ye shall instantly receive, so to speak. It’s no wonder that when something terrible happens, we’ve been conditioned to lift up prayers as our very first response. After all, why not start with our most powerful tool right out of the gate?

Except that prayer, as our modern culture currently understands it, has been transformed from what it was meant to be. We’ve convinced ourselves that prayer is a mechanism by which God takes our worry from us so that we don’t need to feel it anymore. As such, it’s become more of a platitude than a spiritual practice. Prayer has been domesticated, made into a passive exercise that demonstrates our piety without asking very much of us. We see it as a civilized transaction wherein we politely hold out our burdens, and God takes them off our hands for us.

But that’s not what prayer is at all. It may sound like that’s what the hymn is suggesting, but think about how many of your friends you would ask to take on all of your burdens so that you could live a blissfully worry-free life. Hopefully none, because that would be an extremely unhealthy dynamic. No, friendship, more than any other kind of relationship, requires a dynamic of give and take, a SHARING of burdens (as the second verse explicitly states). And if Jesus is our greatest friend, maybe we should start thinking of prayer more in these terms.

God is not the perpetual cosmic nanny of our worries and burdens. Certainly, God heals and transforms and carries our burdens WITH us, but God doesn’t absent them from our lives the instant we say “the magic words”. If that WERE how prayer worked, the gospels would be a heckuvalot shorter than they are. The blind would have immediately regained their sight, the lepers would have already been cured, the dead would have instantly come back to life, and Jesus would have saved a lot in travel expenses. What, do you think these people and their families hadn’t prayed enough? Of course they had! But in scripture, it’s only when Jesus shows up and they allow him into their lives that the healing occurs. All of these stories of healing are about relationship, persistence, and faith in God’s steadfast love for its own sake (rather than the presupposition of God’s action). Prayer isn’t the vehicle of healing itself; it’s simply one aspect of our relationship with the healer. It’s not the way that we gain respite; it’s the way that we express our need for it. So rest assured that even when you pray for something “bad”, you didn’t “make” it happen. You were just expressing to God what you were feeling in that moment…and that’s a good thing!

Because of this, prayer isn’t always flowery or even graceful. No relationship is perfect all the time, and ours with God is no different. As an outgrowth of our ongoing relationship with God, prayer can look very different at any given moment: it can be confused, fearful, angry, even indignant. Many of us struggle with this passage from Matthew about the Canaanite woman, because she seems to be acting really disrespectfully towards Jesus. But her prayer is probably one of the most earnest and genuine prayers in the New Testament. She’s downright annoying in her desperation and persistence; she contradicts Jesus to his face, telling him that she at least deserves the crumbs of his ministry; she physically blocks his path with her body. In short, she engages in a dialogue of real relationship with Jesus. Now THIS is a prayer!

Compare this woman’s prayer to the culture of “Thoughts and Prayers” that emerges whenever a tragedy occurs these days. Prayers are ostensibly lifted up on Facebook and Twitter by the bucketful, but I wonder sometimes about the actual substance of those prayers. Are we lifting up our griefs and burdens to Jesus because of our deep relationship with him, or are we dumping them in his lap because of our expectations of him? Are we even giving them a second thought once we’ve said the words? Are we truly expressing the desires of our hearts to God, or are we just going through the motions so that we can say we’ve done our part and are absolved of further responsibility?

Do you remember the Paris shooting in January 2015 that killed 12 and injured 11? For a week, everyone sent “thoughts and prayers” to France, we all changed our Facebook profile pictures to reflect support, saying “Je Suis Charlie” in solidarity with the newspaper whose offices were attacked. We loudly condemned such violence and the loss of life in spiritual terms. But do you know how we can tell that our prayers weren’t necessarily as heartfelt as we thought? Because on that *exact same day*, there was a car bomb in Yemen that killed more than three times as many people as the Paris attack, injuring six times as many. But there were few thoughts and prayers spared for them, because there wasn’t the same societal expectation. It wasn’t about our hearts being broken over the loss of life and lifting it up to God…it was about saying what we were expected to and washing our hands of the rest.

The same thing happens after every school shooting, every unjustified act of police brutality, every day that goes by without relief for those ravaged physically and economically by COVID-19. Thoughts and prayers, with little done to back them up. Those with the power to change the circumstances go back to working on their pet projects; those with less power to change things turn instead to criticizing those who disagree with their perspective. There’s no persistent begging, no prostrating ourselves before God, not even any extended consideration of what we can do about it with God’s help. Just “Thoughts and Prayers”, and then it’s out of our hands.

When our prayers are genuine, they look and feel very different. Our prayers should make people say, “Send her away; she keeps shouting out after us.” They should continue even when we don’t hear an answer right away. They should ask hard questions of God, like, “Why is this happening?” “How long, O Lord?” and, most importantly, “What can I do?” They should seek transformation, not just personal tranquility. We should pray as if we’re determined to change God’s mind…because if we’re praying for something we really care about, that’s what it should feel like. We can have faith that God’s Will will ultimately prevail and still plead our case. Abraham did it.[1] Moses did it.[2] The Canaanite woman did it. Because that’s what it is to be in real relationship with God. We wear our hearts on our sleeves and God listens, God’s heart breaking right alongside ours.

We should be DRIVEN to this sort of prayer, not just because of our personal desperation, but because of our desperation for God’s Kingdom. The cycle of “thoughts and prayers” tends to ring hollow; we need the genuine variety now more than ever. In his new book published just this past April, Virus as a Summons to Faith, theologian Walter Brueggemann reflects on this through poetry:

We do ‘thoughts and prayers’ easily and glibly,
we do ‘thoughts’ without thinking;
we do ‘prayers’ without praying.
We commit that glib act 
because it is what we know how to do with an anemic god, or
because we are embarrassed to do more, or
because it is convenient and costs us nothing.
Now, however, we are driven to unthinkable thoughts, about
all that is ending, and
all this we have lost, and
all that leaves us with a sinking feeling.
Now, however, we are driven, some of us, to unutterable prayers.
We are driven to such prayer
by awareness that our usual reliabilities are gone.
We are driven to you, the abiding God
when other helpers fall and comforts flee.”[3]

Maybe that’s an unexpected gift that’s grown out of the chaos and pain that surrounds us: in our hopelessness, we’re being driven to a more genuine relationship with our creator. Let’s lean into it, helping something good to come out of so much strife. Let’s pray, not just with our mouths, but with our hearts. Let’s pray, not just with our words, but with our bodies. Let’s pray, not just with our thoughts, but with our whole selves. Not just when we’re expected to, but at all times. Let’s pray in a way that involves us in the transformation that God is even now working in the world. Let’s use our prayers as the first step in a deeper relationship with God, and a deeper investment in God’s Kingdom. It’s part of the privilege of having Jesus as a friend: we can take our whole selves to the Lord in prayer, and see where he takes us from there. Amen.


[1] Genesis 18.
[2] Numbers 14.
[3] “The Giver of Bread and Fish”, page 44.

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