“The Possibility of Prayer”

February 19, 2012


II Kings 2:1-12

Mark 9:2-9

As many of you know, our congregation is currently taking a closer look at the relationship between science and faith. With a grant from the Scientists in Congregations program supported by the Templeton Foundation, some of the scientists in our congregation, along with myself and other clergy connected with our church, have been exploring the issues involved when religion and science meet. We’re developing Christian education materials for people of various ages, we’re planning a series of lectures for this spring and fall, and I will be addressing some of these topics in sermons this year.

Last month a group of our scientists met on two Saturdays to further plan our projects. Now, these are, as you can imagine, very intelligent people who are in no way afraid of saying what they think. As we started talking about the issues that might make for an interesting sermon series, they came up with a list of what one person called “the hard parts”—resurrection, life after death, the end of the world, and divine intervention and prayer. The consensus of these learned people was: “Let’s leave the hard parts for the minister!”


What struck me most about the conversation with our own scientists was how much they were interested in prayer—and the number of problems is raised. It is a “hard part” of the Christian faith.

When Bob Ashman and I attended the Scientists in Congregations conference out in California earlier this month, one of the speakers was Bob Russell, an ordained UCC minister who also has a Ph.D. in physics. Bob is the Professor of Theology and Science at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. In one of the sessions, he addressed the problem of divine intervention and prayer, speaking at length about “non-interventional objective divine action.” I know. The fact people use phrases like that is one reason why Marilynne Robinson spends her summers at the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton trying to help theologians write in ways that can be understood.

I’ll look at prayer and science together in a future sermon.

And throughout the season of Lent I’ll be preaching from the Lord’s Prayer during worship and teaching it during the 9:15 adult education time.

This morning I want to look not so much at the problems of prayer but at the possibility of prayer in light of the strange story of the transfiguration of Jesus that we heard from the Gospel of Mark.

From Mark’s Gospel, we hear of Jesus sending twelve disciples out to tell the good news and to heal. And when they come back, they withdraw for prayer and renewal. When the crowds find them and continue to press in on them Jesus gives his followers another task: “You give them something to eat,” he tells them. After that they again withdraw from the crowds to pray. 

The world may drive us to our knees. Authentic prayer will lift us back up on our feet.

The Christian life has a rhythm of prayer and activity. And there are times when our action is a prayer, when prayer is action.

Jesus takes Peter, John, and James up on a mountain. We are offered the same chance: to retreat, get away from the dust of the day; to take time offered for renewal of our spirits, so that the work of Christ in the world might continue. 

Can we think of prayer as a gift, graciously offered by God? The invitation is given to each of us to come into God's presence with all that we are and all that we desire to be, with all that we have and all that we lack. 

Most of us know the difficulty in finding or making time for prayer. Perhaps you know the feeling that it doesn’t matter if you pray or not, the suspicion that no one is listening. In a wonderful article on prayer, the novelist Rick Moody writes: “I have made a lot of mistakes, and I expect to continue doing so. Yet, most mornings, and sometimes on the subway or in cars or on airplanes or in silence before a movie starts, I engage in this dialogue in which I ask to stay alive and not to do anything dramatically stupid in the next twenty-four hours. . . . All the things I thought about prayer as a child are still true: It takes place in silence, and silence is the response you get, and mostly while you are doing it, you feel like doing something else.”

The silence—the silence of God is a mystery.

In his small book Prayer, Karl Barth, one of the great Protestant theologians of the last century, encourages us, saying: “God is not deaf, but listens; more than that, God acts. God does not act in the same way whether we pray or not. Prayer exerts an influence upon God's action, even upon God's existence.” Those are helpful and challenging words. What we do and what we pray will make a difference.

And so, Rick Moody can conclude: “Often these days I pray for particular results (because I’m not smart enough to do much better).”

Again and again we find Jesus praying. And since we are people who attempt to follow Jesus, we start with the obvious and do some praying ourselves. And we begin to pray, as we begin to follow, just as we are.

Of course, this experience of Jesus and his disciples that we heard this morning takes us far beyond where we are. This story pushes the limits of our understanding, the limits of what we can accept. 

Which is just the point. After all of our prayer, after all of our activity, after all of our speaking and singing, God is still God, beyond us, above us.

If we cannot understand this strange experience on the mountain, at least we can look at it. For its light still illuminates our own experience today. 

Moses, the lawgiver, the mediator between God and the people, and Elijah, the prophet who was to come and restore all things, suddenly appear with Jesus.

The Law and the Prophets speak of God's involvement with the world. The God who creates also guides God's people with the Torah—a word perhaps better translated as the Way rather than the Law. The God who sustains also leads God’s people back with words of judgement and comfort spoken by the prophets. God does not abandon the world but in love stays with us.

This love, spoken of in the Torah and Prophets, is finally shown in the Word becoming flesh. God incarnate in Jesus works for the reconciliation of all creation.

As Christians we affirm something more unusual and more glorious than Moses and Elijah appearing on a mountain. We confess that the God who created all that is, the One who gives us life and yet is the ground of all life is made known through Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus carried out a ministry to the world and invites us to share in that ministry. 

What we call discipleship is in part our own attempts to participate in this ministry of reconciliation—of love overcoming hatred, good overcoming evil. In baptism we are each called to this ministry—the work of the church inside and outside our walls: teaching, healing, feeding, visiting.

Peter and James and John are our role models. Or at least reasonable examples of how those who follow Christ behave. We get scared. We talk without knowing what it is we are saying.

Karl Barth again speaks for most people:

            On the one hand, there is our inward life, that of weak and wily human beings. On the other hand, there is our outward life in this world, with all its difficulties. There is also the judgement of God, who encounters us and says to us at every moment, “This is not enough.” I may even reach the point of asking myself, “Underneath it all, am I a Christian? My faith being small and my obedience slight, of what meaning are these words: ‘I believe, I obey’?”

With such questions, with such worried discipleship we are thrown back on God, whose mercy is great, whose forgiving love is without measure. As imperfect as we are, we are the people God calls to share in ministry to the world, we are the people God invites to pray. If we don’t do it, it won’t get done. How we act each day is of immense consequence for ourselves and for the world.

So the word of God still comes to us today: “Listen.” Not to everything, not to every word. Listen to Jesus. Watch what he does, how he lives. Watch and listen. If you want to know about God, Look. Pay attention.

We are feeble disciples, lame followers—we are Christians. And sometimes, often to our great surprise, we find ourselves capable of great love, generous giving, and courageous action.

Prayer is about the ordinary and the extraordinary. Prayer is about the obvious and about the cloud that overshadows us that we don't understand. 

There's a tension in our following Christ that we can't resolve. We are drawn to follow and pulled toward fear. But tension allows us to stand up and walk. Tension allows us to create, to love, even to bear one another's burdens.

As we live in this tension sometimes the world seems to shine. Sometimes it seems grimy. In every ordinary day of praying and acting God is revealing God's very self to us.

Yes, in many ways prayer is one of the “hard parts” of the life of faith. We can avoid it. We can think about it and analyze it.

Or we can enter into the wonder and mystery of prayer, learning from the example of Jesus. This is the opportunity that opens to us especially in the Lenten days ahead.

Listen. Look. And follow.