Scripture: Luke 18: 1-8
Prayer is a very serious and somewhat mysterious thing for most people. We are taught to pray in many ways. Even though there are countless scriptures and books to help us in this area, many of us would when asked would still say that we are not sure how to pray, others of us may be uncomfortable in saying certain things in prayer, while still others feel very uncomfortable praying with others around. How could this important discipline, I would argue the most important discipline in the walking with Christ, be such a difficult subject for Christians?
Jesus I have mentioned several times, over the past few months, provided an example to his followers of a holy lifestyle. He made it his custom to worship, he withdrew to the isolated places to pray, and he would minister to the people around him. This holy rhythm of life is something I hope we all will grab hold of and incorporate in our lives, because with this rhythm we will begin to see how God can work through us.
Jesus made it his custom to worship. This is an area of the holy lifestyle that we can really understand. It is a visible area that is the most visible aspect of the holy lifestyle. The custom of worship is the gathering of the followers of Christ into meetinghouses, or churches where we read scripture, sing hymns and song of praise, and are encouraged to continue in our daily walk. Because this is the most visible aspect of the Christian community it is often seen as the most important. We invite people to join us for worship. The faithful obtain degrees and take classes to improve the worship experience. We invest great sums of money to the building and upkeep of worship spaces and instrumentation. Often we focus so much in this area of the holy lifestyle that we judge the effectiveness of a community of believers by the attendance of these meetings for worship, we judge the quality of the community by the messages presented by the pastors and priests, and the spirit of the worship by the excitement of the music performed. Jesus did not really pay attention to these things. If he was in a community and it was a day for worship his custom was to go, he did not care if it was the biggest worship community or if it had the best of anything, He worshiped.
Worship is important, making the place of worship inviting and accommodating is important. Insuring that the message and encouragement of the leader is as honest and as theologically and biblically sound is important. Putting forth the best efforts possible as we join together in praise is important, but this is not the most important aspect of life with Christ. This is just one small part of the whole. We should not judge a community of believers solely on these things because as Christ shows us throughout his life the most important aspect of worship is that you make it your custom.
The second most visible aspect of the holy lifestyle exemplified by Jesus is ministry. We see the energy of worship within meetinghouses; we also see what is done outside the meetinghouse. Friends historically have not called their Sunday, or first day, morning sessions of worship, worship services. This is because worship and service are two very different things. Worship happens within the community but service happens when one leaves the meeting for worship and enters into the world again. Service, ministry, or living the love of Christ with others, is where God uses us to help redeem the world. Often it is said in the prophetic writings of the Old Testament that justice is what God requires not sacrifice. Most of the Mosaic laws deal in these areas, how do we live life-honoring God with others. Of the ten commandments the majority are focused on the interpersonal relationships with others, just consider it thou shall not steal, kill, commit adultery, bear false witness, covet, and honor your parents each deal with human relationships. According to the teachings of Jesus in his sermon on the mount, to truly live these commands there is more required of us than just not doing them. Jesus goes as far as to say love your enemies and do good to those that do all manner of evil against you. To honor God in service we must practice ministry. We must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the incarcerated, provide hospitality to the travelers, and more. It is not enough to not kill someone, but to protect. Social Justice is not only a good thing for us to pursue but it is our jobs as follower of Christ. We should be doing all that we can to ease suffering in our communities.
Often worship communities can focus on service and neglect worship, or focus so much on worship that they fail to serve. This battle between worship and service has been fought by the faithful since the beginning of faith. This is why the prophets wrote that God desires justice instead of sacrifice, because the faith community was focusing on one end of the spectrum to heavily.
This brings us to the essence of the scripture and topic today; the third aspect of Jesus’ holy lifestyle is prayer. Which again raises the questions of what is prayer and how do we do it. I say prayer is the most important discipline of the Christian life for a reason, because prayer is what connects worship and service. When we pray we take the songs, scripture, and encouragement of the worship service and we withdraw and allow the Spirit of God to help us make those things real in our lives. When we pray we converse with the divine, asking for our needs and listening for the encouragement to move personally. This is why prayer is such a mystery; this is why we struggle with prayer, and why everyone throughout history has struggled with prayer. This is why there are teachings on prayer, and books written on prayer, because communication and relationships are difficult.
Jesus tells a story of a widow that persistently pursues justice from a judge that does not fear God and has no respect for mankind. Just think for a bit about that one statement, this was a parable told to people that lived nearly 2000 years ago, and it is a statement that many of us today identify with. This tells us something very important about prayer. The widow continues to pursue justice even in a world that has no respect for faith or humanity. She pursues justice, even though atheism and selfishness surrounds her. Persistence is important in a life of prayer. Jesus tells us that not only should we pray but we also need to develop a discipline and incorporate a lifestyle where prayer is part of our rhythm. Even if we do not get what we think is required immediately we should continue to pray. Often we stop praying because we do not see results, some lose their faith altogether because they prayed and God did not grant their request. They may quote verses like, “Knock and it will be opened, seek and you will find, ask and it will be given to you,” and “everything you ask in my name you will be given.” Yet at times we do not get what we desire. Is this because we do not have enough faith? Did we not pray correctly?
Jesus also teaches us something else about prayer. We must listen. Yes I may be reading into the passage a bit on this point, but come with me because I think it is there. We raise our concerns and we then must wait to listen. Jesus says that the woman went to the judge and for a while he refused, that means that at some point in time the woman stopped talking and began to listen to the other party in the conversation. So many times when we knock on heaven’s door we fail to wait for the door to open. We make a request, expect results without waiting for a reply. What happens if we fail to listen? We often miss something vital. It just might be that there is something deeper that must be dealt with before the initial request can be worked out. The woman allowed the judge to refuse. The request was rejected because the proper form was not brought; it was rejected because a license was not applied for. There could be any number of real world reasons that a particular request would be rejected but if we do not listen we would never know.
The next aspect of prayer that is taught is that prayer moves us. This woman is actively pursuing justice in her case. She raises her concern, the request is rejected, she leaves, and returns again to make a request. Often the answers to our prayers begin with us taking steps. This is where listening is very important. This is the process of discernment. We pray and we wait. Maybe we need more information so we are moved to seek out advice. Again we pray and wait. After doing this we soon realizes that we are several steps closer to that request, that deep-rooted desire in our heart, becoming a reality. We remain persistent. We are moved step by step until we look back to examine our lives and realize we are where we need to be.
Worship, Service, and prayer the holy rhythm exemplified by Christ. Each building the other and each will not stand-alone. Without worship and the teaching we would not know the mind of God or know how to ask in his name. Without service our worship is just an empty ritual without power. Both without prayer are lacking spirit and relationship. Worship is the beginning, Prayer allows things to grow, and service maturity. Without prayer service is like a teenager wanting to be seen as an adult, but still acting like a child. Without worship pray is barren. It is that central point of prayer that connects life.
As we prepare for our time of open worship, how we as Friends express the intimate relationship and communion with God. I would like to show a video that was produced by a team of middle school students a few years ago. This video shows how a group of Friends in a healthy rhythm of Christ’s holy lifestyle shows each aspect of Worship, prayer, and service. A video that depicts the life of a few good Quakers one an author and scholar, one a businessman, and one a school administrator as they approach a concern in the world around them. Each in their own lives and in their communities saw an injustice, prayed, and was moved to serve. After the video we will move into open worship and let us reflect on our own rhythm of life. Could we do what these men do? Are we focused too much in one area or another? Or are we seemingly lost? Take this time to knock, ask, seek and find.