Texts: Psalm 22; John 15:1-8
1My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
3Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.
5To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
6But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.
7All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
8“Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver— let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”
9Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
10On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
11Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
12Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.
14I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast;
15my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.
16For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled;
17I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me;
18they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.
19But you, O Lord, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!
20Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog!
21Save me from the mouth of the lion! From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
22I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
23You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.
25From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord. May your hearts live forever!
27All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.
28For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.
29To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.
30Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,
31and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.
15”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
This morning I would like to talk with you about prayer. It’s one of those subjects I come back to every so often because it so mystifies people. It mystifies me. I think it’s supposed to be somewhat mystifying. After all, we’re communing with the Creator of the universe. That should cause us to take pause. But I think where many of us get caught up in prayer is in choosing the right words. In a worship service like ours, where the words of prayer are pre-selected and (usually) well thought out, we can be fooled into thinking that good prayer comes from eloquence and well chosen words. Jesus himself warns against such thinking. So then what makes for quality prayer? If prayer isn’t right words, then what does make for good prayer?
I want to look at our 2 scripture and see what they might have to tell us about prayer. Psalm 22, if it sounds familiar at all, it is because the first verse contains words that Jesus said from the cross. Interestingly enough, to me anyway, some scholars argue that Jesus didn’t just say the words of the first verse, but recited the entire Psalm (and perhaps others ) as he hung to die. The Psalm itself is traditionally thought of as being written by King David when he was under siege from his son Absalom. It is a cry of desperation, a cry for help that then turns into a vote of confidence in God’s ability to care for those who are vulnerable. Psalm 22 is poetry and prayer. And it is deeply relational. Prayer at it’s heart is always a relational activity. It is relational and not transactional.
I think the real problem we face is that we think of pray in terms of a business deal. Prayer is first and foremost the foundation of a relationship between God and us. If we understand God as love, then it is a relationship based in love and seeking to express love.
To speak of relationship with God makes us draw parallels to our relationship with others. Why do we relate with others? Do we form our relationships solely upon what people can do for us? While it’s true that many of our relationships are strictly of a transactional nature, based off of what the other person can do for us, that is not the depth of relationship to which we are called, nor is there much fulfillment to be found in these kinds of relationships.
In our service-based economy, it is very easy to dehumanize the people that serve us: the waiter at a restaurant, the checker at the grocery store, the postal worker… these are relationships that tend to be based on the service that the other person provides for us. I’m not suggesting that we can be best friends, and have relationships of deep meaning with everyone that we encounter… who has that kind of time?.... but we can humanize people we encounter. The small acts of learning a name, giving a smile, thanking people with sincerity, go a long way towards giving dignity to the people we encounter… yes, even the people who’s customer service has not been stellar.
On top of some of my more ambitious life goals, I have one goal in life that really isn’t all that ambitious: to be the regular at a bar. It’s the whole I idea of the show “Cheers” where everybody knows your name, where you can order your regular and the bartender knows what you mean. That is being known.
That’s the point of prayer. In the process of prayer we get to know God and in the process find ourselves being known. We find that we know ourselves more in knowing those things for which we pray.
And that is where the challenging piece begins. Jesus makes this problematic statement in the gospel reading: ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you. Now it’s a conditional statement: IF we abide in Christ and Christ words abide in us THEN we can ask for whatever we wish. Still, it seems like a sweet deal, and one we wouldn’t want to pass up. So what does it mean to abide in Christ?
Jesus uses the image of a vine and its branches. That’s a pretty intimate connection. This metaphor tends to strike us as one of dependence. The branches are dependent on the vine for life. But that’s not a one way street. The vine’s purpose cannot be accomplished without fruit producing branches. There’s a mutuality of relationship expressed in this metaphor.
While it may not be kosher to say that Christ is dependent upon us, it is true that the Kingdom of God is being built by human hands. And we, as branches receive our purpose and identity through being connected to something lasting and infinite.
To be a branch on the vine means that our purposes can’t be at cross-purposes with the vine. If we abide in Christ and the words of Christ abide in us, then our desires will be to see the purposes of Christ lived out in the world. That means as a branch, we produce that is in line with the values of God’s kingdom: peace, compassion, justice, and love.
This is the diabolical thing about prayer. As much as we would use it as a tool to change and influence God, it becomes a tool by which we are changed and shaped. Prayer is a means by which we are united more and more, little by little to the person and mission of Christ. I think we see the highest form of prayer come form Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane on the night that he is arrested, he prays first his desire, that he might be spared of the pain of the cross as any of us might, but then he prays that God’s will would be done. Jesus assumes that by us abiding in Christ as he himself abided in the love of God that our desires would become those of God. He assumes that we would become more in tune with the Kingdom of God or if you prefer, the dream of God, or the Narrative of God.
Hear the words of the famous prayer attributed to St. Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
This strikes me not as the prayer of someone who believes that he can get whatever he wants from God, but who has such a deep relationship with God that he wants what God wants.
So how do we begin this process of praying not only the desires of our hearts, but the desires of God’s heart? Again, I think Jesus helps us out a lot with the model prayer that we call the Lord’s Prayer.
Exercise: choose a favorite version of the Lord’s Prayer and/or rewrite the words in your own words.