Sermon at Nashotah House

Chapel of St Mary the Virgin, Nashotah House–Matthew 7:7–12

I don’t know this for certain, but one of my claims to distinction might be that I have the longest period between my visit to this campus as a prospective student and my actual matriculation as a member of the residential community. It was more than eleven years. I made my prospective student visit in June of 1975, but various circumstances conspired to prevent me from beginning my seminary formation until the fall of 1986. But I still remember that occasion, nearly 45 years ago, when I was ushered into the office of Dean John Ruef for my interview. I was all of 23 years old. Here I was, on a campus that was already legendary in my mind because of the stories my own parish priest had told me of his time here in the 1940s, and while Dean Ruef was not in any way unkind, his countenance was, in my perception at least, a bit severe. I was more than a little intimidated. I remember virtually nothing of the content of that conversation, save for this tidbit: “If you come to Nashotah House,” Dean Ruef told me, “you will learn to pray.”

He was quite right, of course. My time here as a student solidified the anchoring of my practice of prayer in the Thorntonian triad of Mass, Office, and private devotion, and these things have become the veritable “operating system” of my life, always running in the background no matter what other “app” I’m trying to use at the moment. But another quantum leap for my in my practice of prayer happened rather more recently, in the late summer of 2016, when I walked the ancient pilgrimage route across northern Spain to end up in Santiago de Compostela to venerate the relics of the Apostle James. I did a lot of spontaneous praying during those 38 days, initially because, quite frankly, there wasn’t much else to do. If I didn’t have anybody else to walk with, which was usually the case, Jesus was still my constant companion. Along the Camino, I significantly deepened my practice of intercessory prayer; I prayed constantly for people and about situations. I had a sense of carrying these people and situations with me into the presence of God; I even understood my backpack as a sort of sacramental sign of this “burden” I was bearing before the throne of grace, very much a priestly act, in the generic sense.

So, all of this autobiography is simply by way of providing some useful context for how prayer is treated in the snippet from Matthew’s gospel, a snippet from the Sermon on the Mount, actually, that we heard read a few minutes ago. To be candid with you, I’ve always found this passage rather disturbing. It appears to offer a sort of unconditional, money-back guarantee that we get what we pray for. God is a profligate dispenser of “answers” to prayer. Yet, this flies in the face of actual experience. More than once have I stood at a hospital bedside, next to unspeakably frightened family members of the person in the bed, and implored God for a miracle. I once had a parishioner whose only child had committed suicide only a month earlier suffer a massive stroke. I stood there next to his wife and we prayed our hearts out that the Lord would restore him to health. Yet, I presided at his funeral a few days later, and his widow was alone. “For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” Yeah, right. Whatever.

There are, of course, some stock responses to the obvious exceptions to “Ask, and it will be given to you.” Some would say, “Oh, you have to be sure you pray persistently.” Indeed, in other contexts, Jesus seems to encourage us to nag God, to pester God with our petitions and intercessions. While on the Camino, I pestered God every day about a whole list of people, a list that grew as I moved along, thanks to my nightly connection to the internet. Indeed, one of those about whom I nagged God underwent a spectacularly successful back surgery and was relieved of years of chronic pain. Another continued to get sicker, and died soon after I finished my journey. I was persistent in my prayers for both. Did my prayers “work” for one and “fail” for the other?

Others have said, “Yeah, God answers prayer, but you have to be sure that what you’re asking for is in accord with God’s will.” Well, that certainly sounds like a bit of a cop-out, doesn’t it? God will do whatever he’s going to do anyway, and if we just happen to pray along those lines, then chalk that up as an answer to prayer. Now, I don’t want to completely belittle this response, because I think there’s actually some truth to it at a deeper level. But without getting to that deeper level, it’s just too … slick.

Still others erect a qualifying condition focused on the quality of the faith of the person doing the praying. If we set this gospel passage alongside the epistle of James, that makes a certain amount of sense. So, if we don’t get what we ask for, we can always say, “Oh, well, I must have not had enough faith. I must have doubted too much. That’s why God didn’t answer my prayer.” This has the advantage of not compromising God’s dignity, because it’s our fault, not God’s.

Well, as is invariably the case, it’s a good idea to look at the material surrounding the actual liturgical pericope. As I mentioned, tonight’s reading is part of the Sermon on the Mount. But, more specifically, it follows a command of Jesus that we not judge others, lest we be subject to judgment ourselves. And it concludes, of course, with the proverbial Golden Rule, as I originally learned it in the King James Version: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” So it’s a bit of a hermeneutical sandwich, with the injunction to not be “judgy” as the bottom layer and the Golden Rule sitting on top, with the arguably troubling material on petitionary prayer as the main content of the sandwich.

As the New Testament scholar Robert Gundry argues (that is, he who taught at my undergraduate alma mater when I was a college student)—as Dr Gundry argues, “The purpose of Jesus’ teaching on prayer here is not to offer a comprehensive hermeneutic on petitionary prayer,” but to “buttress the Golden Rule … [which] demands a Father-like graciousness” that “forestalls the judging prohibited at the start of this section.” Or, to put it more succinctly, authentic prayer broadens the scope of our concern. Prayer, it turns out, is not primarily about what we pray for. We are indeed instructed to pray for things, to pray for specific outcomes. I pray every day for a whole list of sick people. I pray for their healing, for their health and wholeness. I pray by name for each of the postulants and candidates from the Diocese of Springfield, with a conscious awareness in God’s presence of the particular challenges each one faces. I pray for this institution, for those who lead it and those who bear the burden of governance—again, aware in the presence of God of those things that stand in the way of its complete flourishing. But the outcome of my prayers, if one can even use such language, is of marginal importance alongside of the effect that such a habit of prayer has on the health of my own soul—resting on the foundation of eschewing the judgment of those whom I am in no way qualified to judge, and crowned with a habitual disposition of generosity toward others, behaving toward them as I would have them behave toward me.

And I practice this habit, this garment, of prayer, confident in the love and grace of a “Father who is in heaven” to “give good things to those who ask of him.” I learned to pray at Nashotah House. I learned to pray on the Camino. And the effect of my prayers is measured not in the outcomes of what I prayed for, but in whatever progress I may have made toward being able to look into the face of God and not be turned to dust.

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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