For prayer to be what God intends, we need to see it as how we live in relationship with the Triune God who loves us and saves us.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 26, year B
texts: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Mark 9:38-50; James 5:13-20
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Tell me what you look for in a close relationship with another person, and I’ll tell you what prayer could be for you.
We’re needlessly confused about prayer. If Scripture tells us anything about the Triune God it’s that God desires a true, abiding relationship with us.
Yet we stumble at the very place of connection in that relationship, what we call prayer. We reduce it to a question of access to a divine vending machine, instead of rejoicing in the astonishing gift God offers.
Words like James’ today sometimes get us off track, the invitation to pray for the sick, the claim that “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” From there we’re off to a conversation about whether prayer “works,” or claims about how God answers prayer. Once again we miss the point.
James doesn’t intend that direction. And from what we see in the two other readings, there is clearly a deeper wisdom about prayer we need to learn. It’s all about our relationship with God.
Now, there are at least three important things we want in a close relationship.
We want intimacy with the other person, a closeness of love and care. Intimacy has different shapes and levels, depending on the relationship. Without it, the relationship isn’t close.
We want better knowledge of the other, his point of view, her hopes and dreams, his moods, her wisdom. We want to learn about the other, and the other wants to learn about us, to understand each other better.
We want awareness of our actions and how they affect the relationship. To pay attention to what we do, whether it’s helpful or hurtful, and adjust. Sometimes we seek forgiveness, sometimes we forgive, to continue the relationship. Sometimes we change our behavior.
What we don’t see in our relationships is our usual view of prayer.
Talk of prayer devolves into questions of whether God hears or answers. We’re wise enough not to expect we’ll get everything we ask for. But listen to that sentence. We’d never say that about any good relationship. With how many close friends do you wonder, “Do I always get what I ask for?” Who’d want a friend whose only conversation was asking for things?
So why would God want that? As long as we treat prayer in terms of asking and answering, we miss everything God wants to be with us.
Moses and John today have actual relationship with God. All the elements we desire in close relationship are here. Were we to grasp this we could put two things on the shelf, never to take them up again. We could set aside forever the worthless question, “Does prayer work?” That’s a question we’d loathe in human relationships, we’d never ask it. Alongside it we could put the pat statement, “God always answers prayer, but not always as we want.” That always pushes us back into a mechanical, “what’s in it for me” view of prayer that hinders the true gift of relationship God offers.
So let’s look at Moses and John.
Moses is breathtaking today.
He didn’t want this job, tried to get out of it. Now, into the second year of the journey since Exodus, the people are a huge burden. Hungry, they complained and were fed by manna, heavenly food, given daily. A year into eating that, they long for meat, and complain again.
God’s furious, but it seems directed at Moses, not the people. Because Moses launches into this amazing rant: “why are you treating me so badly? Are these my people? How am I supposed to feed them? I can’t do this job anymore. Kill me if you think I’m bad at this, it would be a blessing.” It’s brilliant.
Look at this true relationship. This isn’t a prayer by Moses, asking for something from God. This is ongoing life together, God and Moses speaking to each other, being changed.
John also freely speaks his mind.
He’s concerned. He saw someone unknown to the disciples casting out demons in Jesus’ name. John said they tried to stop him, since they thought he was unauthorized.
John didn’t expect Jesus’ answer, though. First, Jesus says, if he’s doing powerful things in my name, he’s not likely to speak against me. (He could have added, the power to drive out demons comes from God so why are you concerned?) But second, he says, I’m more worried about the little ones, those following this person. You want a showdown with him, but you forget there are people following him, who perhaps believe in me through him, who could stumble. He also might be weaker in faith, did you consider that?
This is also a true relationship. John and Jesus are talking, learning about each other, being changed.
Those three elements of relationship are all here.
God initiates the conversation with Moses, interestingly. Prayer that starts with God. And Moses reveals a deep intimacy in his outburst. Only someone who trusts completely would be that open and honest about his pain and frustration. Learning happens, too. God listens to the rant, learns Moses is nearing the end of his rope, and says, so to speak, “that’s actually a good point”. God decides to fill 70 people with the Spirit to help Moses. There’s the third element. God’s the one, remarkably, whose action changes. Moses doesn’t have to apologize or even ask; God adjusts, does something different.
With John, Jesus learns he’s anxious to protect him, to make an us vs. them line he can defend. John learns Jesus has a completely different interest. Their intimacy increases with this knowledge, they get to know each other’s mind and heart better. But John’s challenged to change his action, not Jesus.
Jesus makes it clear to John one of his highest priorities is that we don’t block others from coming to him, and so to God. Whatever we do, we need to get rid of anything that might cause us or others to stumble, especially those most vulnerable to doubt. This isn’t quite “get behind me, Satan,” but John’s getting a strong sense doesn’t yet understand his Master.
Moses and John model for us true prayer: a relationship with the Triune God based on honesty, give and take of conversation, listening and speaking.
This is what we need for our journey of faith.
We’ve heard Jesus call us to his challenging path, to give up things, even our lives, and so find life. We’ve recognized the gift of each other on the path: because God’s Spirit flows in us, we are God’s grace and presence to each other on this journey.
But Moses and John remind us we’re also actually walking with God, and should take advantage of that. They invite us to a deeper awareness of our direct connection with the true God.
How different our journey would be if we were more aware every day of our constant companion on the path, our God who loves us. If we learned prayer as a way of getting to know God’s mind and heart better and God ours, a way of deepening intimacy and love with God, a way of considering our steps on the path, our behavior, and adjusting as needed.
This is the relationship we’ve longed for.
Thanks be to God, this is also the relationship God wants.
The Son of God taking on our own bodies meant we could envision a true relationship with God, one that could deepen and grow. It also was a sign of God’s abiding desire to be closer to us. The risk of death at our hands wasn’t enough to keep the Triune God from taking this step to make it possible for us to be in relationship. Relationship where we and God are changed, where we find grace in our companionship on the road.
There’s nothing more we needed for life and hope as we go together. We get to walk with God! Now the journey truly becomes life for us.
In the name of Jesus. Amen