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Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on February 19, 2006

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Sermon preached by
The Rev. Ethan Cole

February 19, 2006
Epiphany 7

In the British satirical comedy, The Meaning of Life, by the troupe, Monty Python, there is a scene in a prep school chapel, where the chaplain offers this prayer:

"O Lord, ooh you are so big, so absolutely huge. Gosh we're all really impressed down here, I can tell you. Forgive us, O Lord, for this our dreadful toadying and barefaced flattery. But you are so strong and, well, just so super--fantastic. Amen."

The congregation then proceeds to sing a hymn:

O Lord, please don't burn us.
Don't grill or toast Your flock.
Don't put us on the barbecue
Or simmer us in stock.
Don't braise or bake or boil us
Or stir-fry us in a wok.
Oh, please don't lightly poach us
Or baste us with hot fat.
Don't fricassee or roast us
Or boil us in a vat,
And please don't stick Thy servants, Lord,
In a Rotissomat.

This prayer and this hymn are funny because they ring true to the way we occasionally pray. We pray for our needs with timidity, barely daring to ask God for anything, either for ourselves or others-we pray, conflating in our mind Our Father in heaven with Zeus who is apt to throw thunderbolts even at his most devoted followers if he happens to be in a bad mood when we catch him. There is no better evidence of this than of the current habit of high placed fundamentalist Christians claiming that natural or manmade disasters are a result of God having removed his protective hand for whatever reason-or even actively causing the disaster because of human sin.

Or alternately, we don't pray at all, having adopted as our own, a vague spiritual God who is either unable or unwilling to hear and respond to the petitions humans offer. And to support this position all we need do is point to the vast numbers of unanswered prayers for protection or healing or a winning lottery ticket that we or our family and loved ones have futilely offered.

In stark contrast to these views of prayer, there is a striking verse in the Epistle to the Hebrews: "Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need."

There are few stories of boldness more touching than the gospel story for today. One day, while Jesus, who is himself the throne of Grace, was teaching, a huge crowd gathered around the house where he was, because of his reputation as a powerful preacher and wonderworker. Four people come to see Jesus carrying a paralyzed man on a mat. The crowd is so thick that they cannot get anywhere near Jesus, so in a bold, almost brazen act, they skip the line, climb up to the roof of the house, tear a hole in the straw or tiles or whatever it is the roof was made of, and let the man down through the ceiling right to Jesus' feet.

The story says, "When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, 'Son, your sins are forgiven.'" It is unclear whose faith he saw, the four and the paralytic, or just the four who carried him-either way, the faith of those who brought the paralyzed man to Jesus is essential to the healing and forgiveness which then takes place. They carried him to Jesus and Jesus transforms the man's life.

This is bold intercession. It is the exact opposite of timid, fearful, or toadying prayer The Throne of Grace is no longer at a house nearby where we can physically carry to him those who need God's forgiveness and healing. So we have the ministry of intercessory prayer: we are able to carry to God in prayer all those who need it. In the Prayers of the People we attempt to do just this. We name by name the concerns where we long God to act, to forgive, to heal. We can be quite detached from this when the concerns are generic-we pray for peace, for goodwill among nations, for all people. et cetera. This becomes poignant intercessory prayer when we are in the relationship of one of the four friends of the paralytic to the concern we are offering to God: instead of for peace, we carry to God and lay at his feet prayers for peace in Israel/Palestine where our friend Paul is working, we lay at God's feet prayers for goodwill among nations as tensions heat up in places where America may become committed to intervene, we pray for all people, but especially we carry to God lay at his feet prayers for my brother, my son, my mother, my friend.

In a large community such as this, many times we do not know personally those who are named on our prayer list-but we do know they are someone's mother, son, brother, or friend-so we intercede for them too, as if we were interceding for our own-because your neighbor in the next pew over is praying for your friend just as you pray for her son.

Because we have a baptism today, we suspend our normal Prayers of the People and pray specifically for the candidate for baptism, Ella Clare Schwabel. We intercede boldly for her as well: Deliver her, O Lord, from the way of sin and death. Fill her with your holy and life giving Spirit. Bring her to the fullness of your peace and glory.

How dare we ask these things? We who are but dust and ashes in front of a God who is so very huge! We dare because when we read scripture we see that these are the things that are promised if we but ask. Scripture is full of God's promises from beginning to end-and St. Paul gives us a wonderful teaching and word of encouragement, "In [Jesus Christ] every one of God's promises is a 'Yes.' For this reason it is through him that we say the 'Amen' to the glory of God"

Jesus Christ is God's great "Yes" to us. And both intercessory prayer and baptism are things God has given us to respond to his Yes. They are the 'Amen' that we offer in response to God's great goodness in Jesus Christ. God has commanded us to pray and to baptize, and we boldly do these things because the answer to what we ask in them is 'Yes!'

But it is a fact that all prayer is not answered the way we ask and it is true that life after baptism looks remarkably like life before baptism. What then is this great 'Yes'? Two things: first, sometimes the power of prayer is remarkably evident. Powerful healings that can be explained in no other way than God's power do happen. God does break in and transform. Second, when God does not appear to act, we ought not loose hope or claim that prayer does not work. God's economy is strange. The Israelites had to wander forty years in the desert before the promise of the land of Canaan was fulfilled. Moses himself did not live to see this promise fulfilled. We may pray and pray for ourselves or another and never see a result-but we may trust that God is working according to his nature for the health and salvation of the whole world: we live on the brink of God's action. It is coming any moment now. We may live to see it or we may not, but we constantly put the past behind us, live in the present moment, which of all times is most like eternity, says CS Lewis, live in the present moment confidently expectantly trusting in the promises of God. As Isaiah proclaims, "Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert."

This is a promise that is answered 'yes' in Christ Jesus. So pray-pray for yourselves, pray for your beloved, pray for those who ask for your prayers-and offer to pray for others, not as a token because you don't know what else to do, but as if you thereby were opening a hole in the ceiling and placing whom you pray for at Jesus' feet, waiting for him to say 'Yes.' And do all of this boldly because Jesus the Throne of Grace commands it, and he desires to be merciful and gracious. Amen.

 

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2006 St. Paul's Cathedral, Buffalo New York