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Letting the Spirit Intercede

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Sep 29

Text: Romans 8: 18-27

Full disclosure. Awhile back, we held a fundraising auction at church. I donated a “sermon on the topic of your choice.” Paul Sawyer, right over there, was the winning bidder and the topic he chose was intercessory prayer. Gulp, I thought to myself then, and now as I prepare to preach it the morning after we hosted the entire Girls Varsity Soccer team for a sleepover. And with that, will you please join me in a moment of intercessory prayer from Psalm 19?

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all hearts be always acceptable in your site, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

From full disclosure to true confessions. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it in her book An Altar in the World, “I am at a failure at prayer!” Does anyone know the feeling? She writes: “I would rather show someone my checkbook stubs than talk about my prayer life. I would rather confess that I am a rotten god[parent], that I struggle with my weight, that I fear I am overly fond of Bombay Sapphire gin martinis than confess I am a prayer-weakling!” All of these confessions are true for me too, except for her brand of gin. The fact remains: much of the time, I too feel like a total prayer-weakling! Taylor continues in a more serious vein: “To say I love God but I do not pray much is like saying I love life but I do not breathe much. The only way I have found to survive my shame is to come at the problem from both sides, exploring two distinct possibilities: 1) that prayer is more than my idea of prayer and 2) that some of what I actually do in my life may constitute genuine prayer!” Amen! There may be hope for me yet and for you too, if you know the feeling!

In Luke’s gospel, the disciples say to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” He answers by praying the words that would become the Lord’s Prayer. Yet when most of us start asking “How do I pray?” Jesus isn’t here to show us how it is done and we soon realize that question is just the tip of an iceberg of a thousand other questions floating in a sea of theological confusion. To whom or to what am I praying anyway? How do I know if my prayer is working? With the Psalmist, we might cry out: How long will you hide your face, O God. Consider and answer!” To these quandaries, we can add:

  • Can God’s will be changed by prayer?

  • And what can we ask for, really?

  • That God’s will be done?

  • That we be transformed?

  • That God’s kingdom be enhanced?

  • Can we ask for healing?

  • Can we ask for mundane things?

  • And how does God answer us?

This last series of questions comes straight from a list that Paul Sawyer handed me after we met for lunch this summer. Again, gulp!

Let’s try to focus in a bit, shall we? After all, prayer, which comes from the Latin precari meaning “to ask earnestly or to entreat,” is a huge topic! Catechisms have for centuries tried to break it down. There are prayers of adoration and praise and thanksgiving, prayers of penitence and oblation, and prayers of intercession and petition. Since we’ve already talked some about confession, its these latter two that we’ll be zeroing in on: intercessions, meaning prayers for others and petitions, meaning prayers for ourselves. Even within that narrower scope, there are distinctions to consider. Are we talking about spoken prayers or silent, listening prayer? Are we talking about prayers made in public or behind closed doors, prayers that are corporate or individual, prayers that are spontaneous or traditional, prayers that invoke scripture or those that are more ‘free range’? You can see the challenge here and why I began to wonder if Paul’s generous donation to that auction was enough. Just kidding! It was plenty! At the heart of matter though, I think are two questions. What does it mean “to ask earnestly,” or “to entreat” God to address our human needs and desires? And what if any difference does it make when we do?

For what may be a new perspective on these age-old questions, let’s turn from Paul of Bolton, Mass. to Paul of Tarsus and to his letter to the early church in Rome! Chapter 8 is a magnificent treatise about how we can hold the present suffering of humanity and all of creation in the wider context of God’s love and promise of future liberation. Tucked within it, Paul offers some deep and foundational wisdom for any consideration of prayer. In verse 26, Paul writes:Likewise 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.” Paul intuits here that most of his readers, including us, do not know how to pray, not really! And into this sad situation, Paul infuses some amazing relief. He says the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for us according to the will of God.” Let’s pause for a moment and take this in! If what Paul is saying here is true, the relief is this: prayer isn’t just about our effort or lack thereof, how well or poorly we start the conversation with God, how often we engage, what words we use. After all, if the Spirit can pray in sighs too deep words, surely we can too! Besides, have you ever sat to down to pray - maybe at a time when your back is against a wall, when the only thing left to do is pray - have you ever started to pray at one of those moments with the awareness that you are joining a conversation already in progress, that God already knows our needs and the needs of others, or that the Spirit is already, interceding, already praying within us to God? Have you ever stopped to pray and felt a profound hello, or a sense of being met, as if you had been waited for. It’s a remarkable shift from the conventional “ask then wait for God’s response” approach to prayer.

And here’s where some good ole Trinitarian theology becomes especially helpful! Consider that God, the three-in-one, is already in constant conversation, in a constant state of community and communion, and its ours to be attentive to it, to let the Spirit work within us and through us Prayer, according to Paul, is what allows us to connect ourselves with divine immanence, that part of God in Christ that is deep within and within creation, that spark, that incarnate energy, that by virtue of the Spirit, also ascends toward the Eternal, Creator, utterly transcendent God that is beyond time and space as we know it.

Ok. I realize this gets esoteric quickly but what all this is driving at really is an awareness that prayer may not be nearly as much about us, our successes or failures with it, as we think! Imagine...what if even our desire to pray originates from the sighing Spirit within. What if prayer isn’t even a matter of our choice? What if God has already started a prayer party within us and its ongoing, on, on and on until the break of a new dawn beyond time when the creation itself will be set free from its decay and we too will obtain the freedom of glory!

Let’s try to get a bit more practical here. Humor me first and say you agree that prayer always begins with God’s initiative, that God is already praying within us. Humor me again and say you agree that prayer is therefore about our response to God’s gracious initiative in us! And humor me once more and say you are feeling a little better, relieved even, when it comes to whatever shame and anxiety we can sometimes feel about our prayer lives or lack thereof. Now, let’s revisit the heart of the matter questions: Given all of this new perspective, how do we ask God to address our needs and what difference does it make?

How? I sometimes think of my prayer as an act of spiritual realignment. When I can remember that God is praying within me, that sighs and not words are sometimes the truest form of prayer, I try to align my sighs with those of the Spirit. This requires trust that those sighs are already there. And quiet listening for those sighs, that still small voice of God, deep within. When I feel like I’m being present to myself and to God, it can mean naming a name, or a desire, or simply being attentive to that all-connecting the energy of God’s presence within and all around me. Frank Griswold writes in his book Praying Our Days that: “Prayer is a form of energy…. Prayer is a manifestation of the Spirit! To pray for others is to acknowledge and call upon this energy whose dominant characteristic is love, a love which exceeds all we might ask or imagine, a love which transcends boundaries life and death, of sickness and health, a love that can endure all thigs and hope all things.” How do we pray? We can start by trying to align ourselves with that deep energy of love!

This requires our utmost attention. The spiritual writer, Simone Weil, puts it this way. She calls it “absolutely unmixed attention!” She says, “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer!” When we are praying for others, letting the Spirit intercede for us even as we interceding for others, we must do our best to devote absolutely unmixed attention and genuinely loving energy towards that person. This means no multitasking! No looking at our phones while praying! God can continue to pray in us during those times but when we are really bringing ourselves to the task, it means setting aside a moment of absolutely unmixed attention! In that moment, we would do well to remember the gist of what Martin Smith says in his book The Word is Very Near You. “God is already in the situation of need, present and active with those who are in want as their upholder and fellow-suffered. God has reached out to us from that place and touched off a spark of response to that need. Having stimulated our caring, God then recruits our love and concern stirring us from within to offer that love and concern in intercession. God then receives the love we offer and weaves it into the combined influences which together can bring about the good that God desires”. Do you see what is happening here? Prayer is all about God! It decenters our initiative and effort to an almost uncomfortable level for many of us. We are so used to thinking of ourselves as fiercely independent and capable and self-sufficient, but that’s precisely when we need God most!

There’s one more question we haven’t gotten to yet. What difference does prayer make, aside from the way it may ground us and change our perceptions and attitudes? As in, does prayer do anything to influence God or outcomes in the world! To be clear, prayer is not about results! Why? Because, as the 4th century St Ambrose noted, if God were to act on everyone’s prayers, then, and I quote “no one would ever die!” Talk about an overpopulation problem! If God were to answer every prayer in the ways we often ask, imagine the trouble that would get us in, the pile ups of cars in the same parking spots, for example! Focusing on results of prayer gets us into deeper trouble when we consider what it would mean for God. If God needed to answer every prayer according to our will, that would utterly limit who God is. Besides, do we really want the weight of this responsibility to be hard-wired into our theology? If our prayers were always answered, we might as well be God! No thanks!

Barbara Brown Taylor shares a story about a brilliant colleague who did everything in his power to ease the suffering of his loved one who as dying. When she visited, she heard him praying to God, pleading that God do something. She asked him about it. He said: “You want to know whether I really believe God will intervene like that? “You wonder if I’m really that naive.” “Honestly,” he said, “I don’t think it through, not now. I tell God what I want. I’m not smart enough or strong enough to do anything else, and besides, there’s no time. So I tell God what I want and I trust God to sort it out!” Taylor adds: “Maybe that is what Jesus meant about coming to God like a child. The Ph.D in prayer is optional!”

Few of us have much experience these days in living without distraction and having moments of absolutely unmixed attention! Some of us have precious too little experience in saying or even knowing what we want. Which is why prayer is, after all, a practice, and one that will draw us into ever deeper relationship with God. When Thomas Merton was asked how does one pray, his answer was just one word: “Pray.” As in, just do it! As in, stop being distracted by your shame and anxiety or even your wondering if its working or if you are winning at it or failing, just do it. Pray! Pray your heart’s and maybe God’s heart’s desire as if it could be no other way. Pray and let God be God. Let’s try it together now.

Loving God, we thank you for putting the desire to pray for others and ourselves inside of us. As we are about to sing, come pray in us the prayers we need this day! Align us participants in that conversation you’ve already begun. And in so doing help us, today or someday, to see your purpose and your will!” Amen.

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