A Sermon from the North Yarmouth Congregational Church, UCC
A sermon offered by the Rev. Nancy J. White in the public worship of the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, North Yarmouth, Maine on March 12, 2017.
Today we are going to reflect on prayer and how through prayer we can come closer to God. In Wednesday evening’s Lenten service, it was mentioned that Jesus lived to be our example. Yes, Jesus did live to be our example in all parts of our lives from how we should live in this world to how we treat others to how we treat ourselves. Prayer is part of all of it.
In our scriptures, Jesus prayed a lot but often the fact that he prayed is sort of an ‘add-on’ to the story rather than the main focus.
From Matthew chapter 14 “After He had sent them away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. When evening came, He was there alone,” – this is part of the larger more well known scripture of Jesus walking on water as he came to his disciples who had gone on ahead of him in a boat and find themselves on stormy seas.
From Mark chapter 1 “Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up and slipped out to a solitary place to pray.” This is part of the larger story that Jesus had just healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and then the whole town came to him and all evening long he healed many.
From Luke chapter 6 “In those days, Jesus went out to the mountain to pray, and He spent the night in prayer to God.” Jesus went to pray after he had helped his disciples catch fish and then ’Large crowds came to listen to him teach and to be healed of their diseases. ‘
From John chapter 11, Jesus prayed in thanksgiving as he brought Lazarus out of the tomb and back to life.
In all four gospels, Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane the night of his betrayal. You might recall that Peter, James and John had a hard time staying awake for even an hour while he prayed as Jesus asked them.
Why did Jesus pray? After all if he was God then why pray?
As I mentioned before, Jesus prayed as an example for his followers then and now.
We believe that Jesus was fully human and fully divine – it was totally natural for Jesus, a devout Jewish person to pray to God. And we believe that in the mystery of the trinity, the one God in three persons, Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit, that there is communication among the 3 persons of the Divine.
It was extremely important to Jesus the person to keep a constant connection with God the Creator and the Holy Spirit – it was vital for his well being as a human and for his ministry here on earth.
Jesus prayed for others. In Matthew chapter 19 in the story of people bringing children to Jesus to be blessed, he prayed for them.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago on Transfiguration Sunday, from Luke chapter 9, “[Jesus] took Peter, John and James with Him and went up onto a mountain to pray.”
And you may recall that in addition to praying in homes, on the street, in the synagogue, Jesus often went off alone and prayed in nature. The Psalmist tells us in Psalm 19 that “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” So it is understandable that immersing himself in God’s created nature, was a good way to commune with God.
So many examples of when, how and where to pray – pretty much sounds like, when – all the time, how – with people and alone, for people and for oneself, where – everywhere, for how long – on the spur of the moment and for hours at a time. So if all these ways that Jesus prayed are to be our example, how do we do that?
I took an entire course on prayer in seminary exploring many and varied ways of praying, of connecting with God. We prayed by ourselves and shared our prayers with each other. We prayed for each other , for our circumstances then. We prayed to be drawn closer to God.
What does it mean to pray? Sometimes it means just being in God’s presence – either in nature or in a quiet space at home. Sometimes it means to talk to God as you would your best friend over coffee or a beer; sometimes it means to reflect in God’s presence – reflect on your life, your work, your family, events of the day, issues in our society. Sometimes it is lifting a list of people and concerns to God and other times it means being quiet and listening for God; sometimes it means letting yourself bask in God’s unconditional love. You can do that in many different ways – some ways will work well for one person and not another. Some people enjoy sitting quietly in a room by themselves, others might find a walk outside a better way to commune with God. Some may be fine with praying in a traditional way; others might relate to something more tangible like going through a family photo album and just reminiscing – telling God about the people, places, and different times in your life. This one is good for a family – you’ll be surprised what comes out of this God remembering and reflecting. Maybe , this is a picture of my grandma and I miss her, or oh how much fun we all had that summer at the lake, or wasn’t it great to work together on church cleanup day.
Prayer has many forms. It can be intercessory or thankful. It can be just being awestruck by and appreciative of the beauty of God’s creation. It can be expressing grief, sadness or anger to God. God will take it all and love us still.
You can pray the scriptures – read a Psalm and be in reflection on it. And reflection can take many forms as well. Sit quietly. Express your feelings in art or music. Express your emotions in dance or movement.
In the course I took, we tried contemplative prayer which was sitting quietly in God’s presence for at least 20 uninterrupted minutes. This was a new practice and was challenging for me but as I committed to trying it, I gained much peace and comfort from it. Setting aside 20 minutes especially in the busyness of life brought with it an understanding that the ‘to do list’ could wait for 20 minutes.
We tried writing our own prayers or doing artwork as a way to connect with God – there may be something on your heart – a joy, a hurt, a problem, a situation – what would that ‘thing’ look like expressed in artwork? At one point on my journey, I was contemplating the concept of God as a Trinity, God in 3 persons and I sat down and expressed it in pictures. I am not a trained artist but this expression of my thoughts (it hangs in my office), my questions, my pondering about God as 3 in 1 helped me. Try dancing as an expression of what’s on your heart or sing a hymn or other song.
In this course, as we reflected together what it means to connect to God, we tried being aware of God’s presence throughout our day, everywhere we went and then we shared our experiences with one another. One experience that I found fascinating was journaling which is merely taking a piece of paper and actually writing down just what was popping into my head. Prayer is just a conversation with God so this was just that only in written form. I remember writing for 15-20 minutes and it felt good to get what was going on in my mind down on paper. The really remarkable thing was that when I went back and reread it later, I realized that the answer I had been seeking was on the page as well and I don’t even remember writing those words.
We pray every Sunday in church and today we light prayer candles to recognize our prayer and ask for others in this church family to be praying with us. For those who may not be comfortable with standing up and asking for prayer, we also have lavender sheets of paper in the pews where you may write a prayer and then I will pray them aloud for you.
Today we have blessed Prayer Shawls made with love and prayer in every stitch – yet another way to be in prayer. And this has the added joy of knowing that someone needing healing, love, or caring will feel those prayers, that love as the pull the shawl around their shoulders.
It was necessary for Jesus the human being to be close to God the Creator. We too want and need to be closer to the Divine. This Lent try a new way of connecting with God and give yourself the gift of time in God’s presence. God loves you. God wants a close relationship with you. In closing I share a poem by Edwina Gateley.
Let Your God Love You
Before your God.
Let your God look upon you.
That is all.
God loves you
With an enormous love,
And only wants
To look upon you
With that love.
Let your God—
~ written by Edwina Gateley.