Mark 4:35-41; James 5:13-20
For the past three weeks we’ve talked about prayer and how it’s not always what we think it is. We can dance, we can walk, we can drive, we can even be in the middle of a conversation when we realize we are praying with our whole bodies. We don’t have to sit down, fold our hands, and be quiet— although if that works for you, that’s fine. And as Randy talked about last week, prayer isn’t just for us— prayer guides us into the world so that the whole world can be transformed by the living God.
So this morning I want us to focus for a minute on what happens when we find ourselves in the midst of storms that we had been praying wouldn’t come. I’ve asked a few people to read some verses from the Bible this morning that are all from the book of Psalms. These are prayers that were written down hundreds of years ago, and give us a sense of some of the angst people in the Bible had with God.
Psalm 22:1-2 1 My God! My God, why have you left me all alone? Why are you so far from saving me— so far from my anguished groans? 2 My God, I cry out during the day, but you don’t answer; even at nighttime I don’t stop.
Psalm 77 1 I cry out loud to God— out loud to God so that he can hear me! 2 During the day when I’m in trouble I look for my Lord. At night my hands are still outstretched and don’t grow numb; my whole being refuses to be comforted. 3 I remember God and I moan. I complain, and my spirit grows tired.
4 You’ve kept my eyelids from closing. I’m so upset I can’t even speak. 5 I think about days long past; I remember years that seem an eternity in the past. 6 I meditate with my heart at night; I complain, and my spirit keeps searching: 7 “Will my Lord reject me forever? Will he never be pleased again? 8 Has his faithful love come to a complete end? Is his promise over for future generations? 9 Has God forgotten how to be gracious? Has he angrily stopped up his compassion?” 10 It’s my misfortune, I thought, that the strong hand of the Most High is different now.
Psalm 13: 1-4 1 How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2 How long will I be left to my own wits, agony filling my heart? Daily? How long will my enemy keep defeating me?
3 Look at me! Answer me, Lord my God! Restore sight to my eyes! Otherwise, I’ll sleep the sleep of death, 4 and my enemy will say, “I won!” My foes will rejoice over my downfall.
Do you recognize any of those feelings in your own prayer life? I do. There are more psalms of lament— asking God for help— than any other type of prayer. And I’m always a bit relieved to hear them from the Bible because then I don’t feel so alone when I find myself praying those same things.
Three years ago this September I was waiting to see a post on Facebook from my friend Jenny— a brilliant young artist, teacher, and friend from my last church whom I’d had the honor of marrying to her husband Alec. But that post never came. She was due any day and went to the hospital with a terrible headache. That’s when she suffered a massive stroke. Her daughter, Norah, lived and will be turning three soon. But Jenny never even got to meet her. That fall I did a lot of yelling at God, as I’m sure so many of us who knew Jenny did. And there are still nights, like at our Seasons worship service last Wednesday, when grief of her death washes over me now, four years later, and I am grateful that God weeps with me, even as I sometimes still get angry. Maybe you figured this out by now, but my prayers as a Pastor are not more effective than when I was a lay person. They don’t teach us in seminary how to make our prayers come true— because none of us are God.
So this morning I just want to start by stating the obvious— that living a life of prayer does not mean everything goes right. I just want to get that out of the way. I think sometimes when we talk about prayer we have a tendency to over-promise the results of prayer. Even in our scripture this morning, the author of James gives an example that I find to be fairly unhelpful. As an example of the power of prayer he says that Elijah prayed for it not to rain and then for three years and six months it didn’t rain. So then Elijah prayed again, and it rained and the earth yielded a harvest.
Now for any of you farmers out there, or relatives of farmers, you know that many a prayer has gone up for rain and it didn’t rain or for the rain to stop and it didn’t stop raining. Prayer is not magic. And the reason it is different from magic is because the power that happens when we pray, is not our power. It’s not a trick.
I have to believe that the author of James knew this. I’m sure he had been through his own storms! So I think the point of using Elijah as an example, is to show the magnitude of what we can pray for, and that I believe to be completely true. We can pray for rain when we need it; we can pray for our dream job or for friendship or for our neighbors. We can pray for our local and national leaders to be wise; we can pray that someone be healed from their disease. We can pray for really big things that we think are absolutely impossible and we can be assured that for whatever reason, when we pray, things do happen. Which is why I still pray for Alec and Norah to be filled with love even without Jenny around to love them. James encourages us to pray for one another; to anoint each other; to call on each other and share what’s going on in our lives; to forgive one another. Because through prayer we change; situations change; people are healed in a variety of ways. The outcome may not be at all what we were hoping for; we may never have the answers we’d like to have; but through pray we will find God.
Which is the main reason I pray— because I know God hears our cries. In our Gospel this morning the disciples are out on their boat in the lake when a huge storm comes up. Their boat is literally getting swamped and they are terrified. And then they remember that Jesus is sleeping in the stern and they are shocked by this and go running to him and wake him up saying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And what does Jesus do? He gets up. This may not seem like a big deal, or out of the ordinary— most people can’t sleep in a boat of all places during a storm. And yet Jesus’ response of getting up and then calming the storm, is reassuring because its totally in character with what God is doing for hundreds of years before that. Story after story in the Bible tells us that God hears us when we cry— God heard Abraham and Sarah, even as she laughed at the promise of a baby in her womb. God heard Jacob sleeping out in the wilderness even while he was too prideful to ask for help in his relationship with his brother. God heard the people who were enslaved in Egypt and instead of just relieving their suffering, gave them an identity as the people of God and brought them to the promised land. Time after time after time God hears our cries— whatever they are, wherever we are, and God responds— not always calming our storms when we desire them to be calm, but God is always in the boat, present with us through it all.
Madeleine L’Engle, in her book Two-Part Invention writes, “It is when things go wrong, when the good things do not happen, when our prayers seem to have been lost, that God is most present. We do not need the sheltering wings when things go smoothly. We are closest to God in the darkness, stumbling along blindly. There is no such thing as belief without doubt or struggle.”
We have been through a lot as a church community. 160 years, in several different buildings, none of us was there at the beginning, but I think it’s probably likely that we have argued about a lot of things! We have done an immense amount of good in this community. We have stood for justice on a range of issues and have been part of feeding the hungry and advocating for the poor. We have a rich heritage. Like our Biblical ancestors, the original founders of this church couldn’t have ever imagined all the different ways this community would live out the love of Christ. And just like all of them, we can’t imagine what God will do in the next hundred years.
You see the best ministry of this church is still ahead of us. And it is not dependent upon what we know or even on what we can imagine— the future of this church is dependent on us praying together. Our prayers are powerful and effective- even more so when we pray together. When we pray together, our lives are changed; when we pray together this community is changed; when we pray together things happen that we could never dream possible! Prayer makes it possible for us to live out God’s love— to put love first in our lives and to turn to God in times of storms.
Adam Weber in his book Talking with God points out that Jesus was living through the same storms the disciples were living through. It’s not that they called him on the phone from miles away or signaled him in a light house where he was safe and sound. He was in the same storm, and yet he was sleeping; and the only difference, is that he knew God was with them in the storm and would hear their cries.
Listen once again to the words of those who wrote the psalms. So many of them that begin with anger end in a different place— knowing that God is with them, just as God is with us.
Psalm 22:3-5 3 You are the holy one, enthroned. You are Israel’s praise. 4 Our ancestors trusted you— they trusted you and you rescued them; 5 they cried out to you and they were saved; they trusted you and they weren’t ashamed.
Psalm 77: 11-15 11 But I will remember the Lord’s deeds; yes, I will remember your wondrous acts from times long past. 12 I will meditate on all your works; I will ponder your deeds. 13 God, your way is holiness! Who is as great a god as you, God? 14 You are the God who works wonders; you have demonstrated your strength among all peoples. 15 With your mighty arm you redeemed your people; redeemed the children of Jacob and Joseph.
Psalm 13:5-6 5 But I have trusted in your faithful love. My heart will rejoice in your salvation. 6 Yes, I will sing to the Lord because God has been good to me.