Life is Fragile. Handle it with Prayer

A Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Year B – September 30, 2012

David H. Knight,  Priest Associate

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.

There are so many things that clamor to be said when it comes to the matter of prayer which is at the heart of today’s reading from the letter of James who writes,

“Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? 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. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven…” James 5:13-15

 Among the things that Jeannie acquired from her mother is a little framed piece of needlepoint beautifully done with the inscription, “Life is fragile, handle it with prayer.”  We hear again from James words that speak to the very core of our being. Today’s reading continues the promise of which John spoke in his sermon last week—that  God is always there, seeking to heal, forgive and redeem us and inviting us to remain close to God in the midst of all. Today’s reading invites us to draw near to God in prayer.

 There are, as we experience, many forms of prayer. There are the beautifully crafted prayers found in our Prayer Book both for use in our common worship as well as use in our private devotions. Some of the prayers are ones we remember from childhood.  They are prayers that remain a source of strength even to our last days.  Some of my fondest memories of the last years with my father when he was a resident in healthcare at Westminster Canterbury were Sunday nights when we would spend time together as he was retiring for the night. While my dad never lost his dignity or his grace, or his ability to relate to people in his gentle way, his memory loss progressed during his final days. There were those times when he thought I was his brother, Franklin. I considered that an honor as Uncle Franklin was a fine man. One Saturday afternoon, I took my father to a car show of Buicks here in town. As we drove there that day he was thinking I was his brother. When we got to the show I spotted a beautifully restored 1936 Buick that I thought was like the  ’36 Buick he once had. I pointed it out to him and we went over see it. He looked at it and said, “But mine didn’t have the side mounts this one has.” (For those of you who are unenlightened about side mounts, they were spare tires in the front fenders) You see, the important stuff was still there, etched in his memory. That I was his son was less clear that day, but that was OK. He enjoyed the car show and we had a good time, and most of all he knew his cars.  But on Sunday nights, I would sit at his bedside as he went off to sleep as was our ritual. As I would be getting ready to leave I would say, “Dad, would you like to have a prayer together before I go?” He would say yes and invariably he would ask, “Do you live here now?” I would tell him yes and simply take his hand and start that familiar prayer for the evening, “O Lord, support us all the day long until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes…”  Dad would immediately join in and recite with me every word as this prayer was etched in his memory from childhood. We would continue together, “and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in thy mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last. Amen.” And a sense of peace would come over him and he would rest. Such beautiful prayers these are, many of them learned on our mother’s knee or early in life, prayers that sustain us throughout our lives.

 There are many settings in which our prayers are voiced and heard by God such as the prayers we offer here this morning, or at home at our bedside or in any number of settings and places.  I recall what Bishop Alexander Stewart once said to a group of us newly ordained priests as he offered to us his wisdom on spiritual discipline. This was back in 1972 when I was a young, impressionable priest, eager to learn, and eager to emulate those who were my heroes.  (I hope I’m still eager to learn!) Bishop Stewart, of whom you have heard me speak was among those I deeply admired. He was a great pastor to his clergy, a great preacher, and, perhaps—just perhaps— one of the most creative drivers behind the wheel of a car in all ofWestern Massachusetts.  It was documented, for example, that he could leave the Cathedral inSpringfieldand arrive at any parish in the diocese of Western Massachusetts, a large geographical area, within 11 minutes. Driving in his 1971 Audi 100 LS 2-door coupe affectionately known throughout the diocese as “The Silver Bullet”,  he would simply adjust his ground speed accordingly. On occasion, if he had to travel the Massachusetts Turnpike, it might have taken him an additional seven minutes as he was, from time to time, invited to pull over and participate in a roadside interview with one of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Finest. In any case, those of us who came under Bishop Stewart’s tutelage strived to emulate him in any way we could so that we too could become good priests, even if not bishops ourselves. I thought, therefore, that if I drove like Bishop Stewart, I too could become a fine priest. But back to his wisdom on spiritual discipline:  I remember him telling us one time that as clergy we would be spending a lot of time behind the wheel of our cars driving to hospitals and parish visitations and that this would be a good time to be in conversation with God.  It would provide us time to say our prayers. Some time thereafter, I shared that wisdom in a sermon I was preaching at St. Stephen’s in Westborough. My sermon was about prayer and after the service, at the door, a dear lady, a very thoughtful lady, a lady whose devotion and whose faith I admired, said to me, “David that was a magnificent sermon today.” Well, as you can imagine I could not have been more pleased. Coming from this lady, this was a compliment any preacher would covet. And then she added in a matter-of-fact tone, “And David, the way you drive, it’s a darn good thing you pray behind the wheel.” My elation was short lived as I began to pick up what she was putting down for me to hear. But having said that, the fact remains that the settings and circumstances for our prayers are as varied as they can be. Praying behind the wheel is a great place to have a conversation with God.

 Life indeed is fragile and we must handle it with Prayer.

 In these verses James offers examples the different occasions of prayer. Someone long ago suggested that prayers could be broken down to four categories, adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. We can see these in evidence both in our life in the church and within our personal lives.  These are the prayers that are spoken either by us or for us by others. There are those times when we give thanks, other times when our prayers of supplication call upon God for something we seek for ourselves or for others. But then, then, there is yet another kind of prayer that bears mentioning, a form which perhaps all too often we overlook or don’t recognize, yet it is a form of prayer that God hears. It is a form of prayer that happens during those times in our lives when we think we are unable to pray. It is those inarticulate groans we utter at times when we are in despair.  We do not think of our groaning as prayer yet it is, and it is amazing how scripture provides evidence that it is. The psalmist writes, “O Lord, you know all my desires, and my sighing is not hidden from you.”(Psalm 39:6)  Jesus groaned within himself because of the pain of seeing his friend Lazarus dead. In his letter to the church gathered inRome, Paul reminds us that 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.  The instances of God’s people groaning in the bible indicate that God does hear our groans of pain and suffering. It is a physiological dynamic, for example, that a person in grief over loss will be given to frequent sighs, often unable to articulate in words the depth of their despair.  Those sighs are, in fact, a form of prayer and God hears those inarticulate sighs every bit as much as God hears our prayers delivered in the beauty of Elizabethan language from our Prayer Book.  

 Life indeed is fragile, and God hears our prayers in whatever form they take.

 The church, as a praying community engages, in all forms of prayers. Those names we include in the Prayers of the People are people who so often tell us how much it means to them to know that their parish is praying for them. Our prayers for them help to sustain them in ways we sometimes may never know. There are times when we are unable to pray for ourselves. We find strength in the knowledge that we are remembered each Sunday by the community of he faithful around us.  I remember visiting the bedside of Bishop John Baden, my beloved predecessor as rector of Christ Church and later suffragan bishop of Virginia.  When he retired, he was looking forward to raising sheep on his farm in Bunker Hill, West Virginia, a natural for him as he was a true shepherd. His journey, however, would take a sudden turn as he was diagnosed with a virulent form of cancer.  I saw him shortly following his surgery at the Winchester Hospital. He said to me, “Boy, (he often called me “boy”) you’re all going to have to pray for me because I cannot pray for myself .” He was just devastated. Now this was coming from a servant of God with a vision for the church who had a deep faith. He was a shepherd to so many, but now, he could not pray for himself. I assured him of our prayers.  Some time later, I was visiting him one snowy afternoon in his home in Bunker Hill. There was a nice fire in the fireplace as the wind and snow howled outside. Bishop Baden was cheerful that day. He looked at me and said, “You know those prayers you all have been offering?” I said, “Yes, Bishop.” He said, “Those prayers are helping. I still have the cancer and it’s not going away, but those prayers are what are keeping me going, and I am most grateful.” God heard his inarticulate groans and God heard the prayers of the church. These prayers ultimately sustained this man throughout his journey.  I asked him if it was OK for me to share that with others and he said yes, and I share it with you again now these years later, for his story bears testimony that God hears our prayers in whatever form they are offered, even when cannot articulate them ourselves.

One final thought: Those prayer shawls that some of you so beautifully knit are a form of prayer that brings comfort to those who receive them. Knitting them can even be a form of prayer as you might be thinking of those who will receive them.  Prayer changes lives, our own, and the lives of others. Prayer empowers us to draw near to God and be sustained through all that life can bring.

 As life is fragile, let us have the grace to handle it with prayer.  Amen.