Is Prayer Any Use?
| James 5:13-20
||Sun, September 28, 1997
Rev. Ed Searcy
|dear God ...
what was I thinking?
If you use a question as a sermon title
you are making a silent contract with the congregation
to answer it.
And how else is a Christian preacher going to answer
a question like
“Is Prayer Any Use?”
But with a resounding ‘yes’.
Start piling up the illustrations right about now
to prove the self-evident truth
(at least among Christians, surely)
that prayer is not only important ...
it is useful.
That is the measuring stick in our Age.
How useful is something?
It is a society where the ritual greeting of a stranger is:
“So tell me, what do you do?”.
It is an only slightly veiled version of the question:
“How useful are you?”
That is what I was thinking when I decided
to ponder the question:
“Is prayer any use?”
And, as much as I know that the answer must be yes,
I wonder about how useful prayer is
and for what.
In this, I am surely more a child of
the scientific age
than a child of Christian tradition.
Ours is a world where the first response
to suffering is not prayer,
as James advises,
but pharmaceuticals ... therapy.
We have discovered the powerful curative possibilities
that science can unlock.
And we have found prayer to be, at best,
a fanciful hoax passed on by a pre-modern world.
Travel to the Muslim world
and you will see them praying
there on the tarmac at the airport ...
all of the baggage crew
on their knees
while you stand and wait.
in the ‘Christian’ West,
see what happens if two of you stop to say grace
over your big mac at MacDonald’s.
You can almost hear the silent question being asked:
“Is that prayer any use?”
It is asked in the halls of science, too.
Befuddled by the complexities of cancer
modern medicine has begun to ponder
the power of prayer.
Some call it “visualization” ...
and teach patients to visualize themselves
Others set up experiments
in which they compare the results
of those who pray and are prayed for
with those who make no use of prayer.
‘Is prayer any use?’
the research community wonders.
It is no longer a foregone conclusion
that the answer will be a chuckling
“You’ve got to be kidding”.
Too much research suggests
that there is power in prayer.
We know, of course,
that humans long for powerful prayer ...
for meaningful contact
with the forces beyond the range of our senses.
To the great surprise of his university peers at Oxford
JRR Tolkien turns his lifelong study of Norse mythology
into an enormous best-seller.
Tolkien writes for his own children
about a world in which small human-like creatures
engage in cosmic struggles with the aid of unseen,
Half a century later,
‘The Lord of the Rings’
sits in every bookstore in the land.
in the section called ‘fantasy’.
Equalling it in popularity in the video stores
is a twenty year old trilogy
in which an ordinary boy
engages in a cosmic struggle
with the aid of an unseen,
very real ‘Force’.
“Feel the Force”,
coaches his mentor
like some cosmic spiritual director.
Ours is an Age when such forces
have been debunked by the scientific world
as ‘fantasy’ ... ‘science fiction’.
Yet we and our children
are still drawn to these powerful stories
of good and evil,
of pilgrimage and of courage
and of drawing upon an unseen power
within the Universe.
What, then, are we to make of the earliest Christians?
“Are any among you sick?”, asks James,
“They should call for the elders of the church
and have them pray over them,
anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”
What is it about this picture that bothers us?
There is the embarrassment of such odd,
pre-scientific behaviour in a thoroughly modern world.
There is the lingering Protestant suspicion
of anything that smacks of Catholicism ...
though we would rather not admit to it.
Most of all,
there are the Elmer Gantry’s of the world ...
the charlatans whose snake-oil ministry
has stolen too many widow’s mites
in the name of the Lord.
in spite of the early church’s experience
of the healing power of prayer
we stick to our own brand of prayer.
Which is to say that we talk.
When we think of prayer
for the most part
most of us
think of talking to God.
That’s how we were taught
from the time we were little:
“Don’t forget to say your prayers”
Our prayers become a litany of requests ...
and we ponder God’s apparent disinterest.
“Why doesn’t God answer my prayer? we wonder.
To which an acquaintance responds...
“Remember, there are three possible answers to a prayer:
yes ... no ... and maybe.”
In a society that fears silence,
that covers it over in an elevator
or in a waiting room
or on a phone line
with endless, meaningless music ...
It comes as no surprise
that we fill up our prayers with noise.
At the same time
our prayers are often empty.
We seem to be asking
and yet are afraid to ask ...
to really ask ...
Maybe it is because we are too polite ...
because we feel undeserving.
James is pretty clear:
“The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”
Dare we consider ourselves among the righteous?
Surely not if by ‘the righteous’
we mean ‘the morally pure’.
But, of course,
the righteous are not the pure ... the sinless.
The righteous are those in a living
and right relationship
Paul has made it abundantly clear
that all - even the righteous -
The righteous are sinners
who have discovered the amazing grace of God.
This discovery of God’s forgiveness
has enabled them to re-enter
a living relationship with God.
Here is the reason that James
speaks of the confession of sin
and of prayer for one another
in the same breath ...
it is because they are both
essential for our healing.
Maybe this, in the end,
is the reason that we shy away from prayer.
It means baring our soul
and one another.
It means entering into a relationship of deep and real trust
It means daring to ask ...
and even more daringly
to honestly listen for
and be ready to feel
the prayer of God in response.
Is prayer any use?
I suppose it depends who you ask ... and when.
To those whose prayers seem to rise up in futility ...
like puffs of smoke that disperse into the haze
prayer may seem a cruel joke.
To those whose prayers seem to strike the heart of God ...
like love letters that call forth a responding love
prayer must seem the ultimate healing ‘force’.
To Jesus, who prays that the cup of suffering might pass,
prayer is meant to be useful, yes,
but not to the earthbound one.
“Yet not my will, but thine be done” Jesus prays.
Discarded on a cross
the people think his prayers are of no use.
God sees something else at work ...
it is God’s own prayer
for the healing of the earth
answered by the actions of a Sacrificial Servant.
Listening to the experience of the church
in every age
we can only affirm
the utility of prayer.
We do so when we open ourselves to be used by God
in ways we have never imagined.
This is the heart of prayer ...
not that through it we seek to use God
but that in prayer we expect that God will use us.
Next Sunday evening in this Chapel we will spend an hour
in prayer as they do in the French village of Tauze.
There will be few words spoken.
There will be periods of nothing but silence.
There will be candles on the floor.
And there will be prayers ...
Repetitive and simple prayers
in Latin and in English.
Singing together, it is as if we can hear the prayers of the
world rising up to heaven ...
and then the solo voice of an instrument or a singer
offers up the prayer of some lone soul,
of some aching people
or of some church gathered
as we are, here.
Then, if you listen between the lines
and in the spaces of our silence,
the prayer of God comes ...
in a scripture read,
in a vision of a way ahead,
and in divine forgiveness freely offered.
Watching from outside
the world wonders if our prayers are of any use.
Sitting in here
we have come to trust our prayer to God’s use.
Which leaves just three words to be said: let us pray ...