Elements of Worship: Prayers of the People
(Following is a transcript of a sermon delivered on Sunday, October 15, 2017.)
Scripture: Philippians 4:4-9
We’ve moved this fall through the elements of worship, the Welcome, the Confession and Assurance, the Passing of the Peace, the Scripture, the Sermon, and we’ve now arrived at the Prayers of the People. The Prayers of the People, it’s the time that we come together to share our joys and our concerns, our hopes and our worries with one another and with God, to lift them up in prayer both individually and communally.
Listen again to this passage in Philippians: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
In everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. In the blog this week I mentioned a book called A Book of Uncommon Prayer: Extraordinary Prayers for Ordinary Occasions, put out by the UCC writers group. This book is filled with prayers for such grand occasions as “When I’m in a Boring Meeting,” “When I’m Cleaning Up After a Party,” “When Children Grow Up”, and “When I’m Given a Snow Day”. It also has a prayer for “When I Can’t Pray.”
What a beautiful reminder that every moment of the human experience is worthy of prayer, that being thankful for food, laughter, and libations shared among friends is as worthy of lifting up to God as our grief and confusion in times of trial.
This is one of the things that I love about the Prayers of the People is that we really get the full range of the earthly, human experience. I’ve heard prayers of joy for the birth of a grandchild, prayers made in only half-joking desperation for the success of a struggling potty trainer, prayers of adoration for a snow day, prayers to ease the anxiety of upcoming exams, prayers to soften the hearts of estranged family members and prayers for the courage and strength to end toxic or abusive relationships. I’ve heard prayers that express the sad but gentle relief of an elder released from their earthly suffering, and prayers barely choked out, reminding us of the stabbing pain of a life cut short.
And that’s the thing- the human experience is so wide, so varied, so rich, this really is a time to lift up all of our prayers…we may feel hesitant at times to give voice to joy or gratitude right after someone has shared their grief or their anxiety, but that’s part of praying as a beloved community, that’s part of being the Body of Christ. As the Body of Christ we are big enough- our hearts are open enough to lift up each others’ celebrations with joy and exuberance, even as we tenderly hold space for their grief and their pain.
In the blog this week I also briefly touched on something called intercessory prayer. This type of prayer is mentioned in Paul’s letter to Timothy, where he writes, “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”
Who here has heard the term “intercession” before? I hadn’t until maybe a year ago…
Intercessory prayer is actually one of the types of prayers that we practice in the Prayers of the People is called intercessory prayer- it’s the kind of prayer where we pray for the needs of others, where we ask God for help on their behalf. If any of you have ever heard of Anne Lamott’s book, Help, Thanks, Wow, this is the “help” part.
And I’ve noticed that for many of us, this comes fairly easily, asking God for help, whether it’s on behalf of others, as an intercessory prayer, or for ourselves.
There are many stories in the bible about folks who ask God for help, and one of my favorites comes from the book of Mark:
25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 32 He looked all around to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
I want to try something: Close your eyes. Go on, no one will feel silly if you’re all doing it! Close your eyes and imagine what it would be like to be on the road that day, amongst the crowds, knowing that someone really special was going to pass by.
Can you smell the dirt road, dusty from several days of sunshine? Can you feel the worn, roughly-woven fabric as you bump into people in the crowd? Can you hear the giggles of children as they run along, the hushed-yet-frantic voices of the adults in the crowd, whispering the rumors they’ve heard about this teacher and his motley crew?
I want you to think about what you would be yearning for, as you reach your hand out. Concentrate as hard as you can on whatever it is your soul is aching for, as you stretch your fingers as far as they can go, hoping to feel the brush of fabric against your fingertips, wondering if you’ll feel different the moment it happens, trusting nonetheless that you will be healed.
Now open your eyes…
We just prayed together, did you realize that’s what we were doing just then? Just like the woman in the road, we asked God for help. This nameless woman’s silent act of faith, the stretching out of her hand and the yearning of her heart, it’s an act of prayer, of asking God for help. And as we just demonstrated, we’re all pretty good at that.
It doesn’t often feel awkward, or embarrassing, we can easily imagine ourselves doing the same, reaching out to ask God for help. So let’s do it again. On the count of three, I want us all, in big, strong voices, to say “Please help me, God!” Just like that, “please help me, God!”…ready? Ok. One, two, three…PLEASE HELP ME, GOD!
That was probably a much pithier prayer than you’re used to, but it wasn’t too hard. So now we’re gonna switch it up. Look at one of your neighbors…we’re still going to count to three, but this time I’m going to ask you to look your neighbor right in the eye, and say “Please help me”. Ready? One, two three…
That felt…a little awkward, huh? Who felt a little awkward doing that? Yeah, I felt kinda awkward coming up with this activity, but I think it speaks to a really important truth. It’s really, really hard to ask someone else for help. But why? Why is it that we’re often so comfortable asking God for help, privately or publicly, but we find it so hard to ask each other for help?
It’s a scary thing to do, really – to admit “I can’t do this on my own”, especially when what we might really be thinking is “I’m not enough”.
But what is enough? Perfection? Are the only ones worthy of help the ones who don’t need it? Because that doesn’t seem like a very fair system! And anyway, we all know, deep down, however much we want to try and be the exception, that nobody is perfect!. I sure know I’m not. I am not perfect. Say it with me…I AM NOT PERFECT!.
None of us are perfect, and the Bible tells us time and time again that God loves us in all our imperfection. Surely if we are worthy in God’s eyes, if we are enough for God, we can be enough in our own eyes as well.
I know, I know, easier said than done. But that’s how asking for help can help us grow, see? The more we acknowledge the unspoken truth that we aren’t perfect, the more we see ourselves as worthy of love, as enough in our own eyes. I’m sure most if not all of you have heard the song that goes, “I am a rock, I am an iiiiiisland!” We often focus so hard on trying to be self-sufficient that we conflate it with our self-worth. But we weren’t created to be rocks, or islands…we were created to be communities, to rely on one another, to love our neighbors as ourselves. Asking for help builds the relationships that are the foundations of community, and here’s how.
When you ask someone to help you, you are revealing your vulnerability. It’s scary to be honest about our imperfections, our weaknesses, our…vinceibilities. Bearing our vulnerabilities in this way is also an exercise in trust- in faith. We trust those we come to for help to not take advantage of us, mock us, or exploit our weaknesses for their own gain.
We trust that they would want to help us, we trust their love for us, be it romantic, platonic, or neighborly, in the ‘Jesus’ sense of the word. What a wonderful affirmation to give someone! ‘Friend, I’m in over my head, and I think you are loving, trustworthy, and capable enough to help me.”
One of my favorite books, A Severe Mercy, a memoir of romantic and spiritual love, explains it this way. Talking about his relationship with his wife, the author writes, “There was a principle of courtesy: whatever one of us asked the other to do- it was assumed the asker would weigh all consequences- the other would do. Thus one might wake the other in the night and ask for a cup of water; and the other would peacefully (and sleepily) fetch it. We, in fact, defined courtesy as ‘a cup of water in the night.’ And we considered it a very great courtesy to ask for the cup as well as to fetch it.”
I love this story, that asking your loved one to help you is a courtesy to them. You are not only giving them an opportunity to fulfill their vows to you, but also making the statement that you have faith that they will. When the woman reveals to Jesus that she was the one who touched his clothes, he recognized the profound act of trust that she had displayed, believing so strongly, trusting wholeheartedly that Jesus would be able to heal her, and would deem her worth healing. He reassures her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well”.
We were meant to rely on one another- to have faith in God, to have faith in love, to have faith that God’s love is present in each of us, that those around us will help us as best they can if given the chance. Often in the Bible, we hear the Church described as the body of Christ, and Paul frequently talks about how we each have different roles to play to help the community truly embody Christ and Christ’s love, and we talked a little bit about this a few weeks ago when we explored how the Passing of the Peace helps us practice how to be a community together, in Christ.
Asking one another for help brings us together as the body of Christ. When we stop trying to be completely self-sufficient individuals and instead embrace our role as interdependent communities, we are embodying trust, love, and service in a way that not only deepens our own sense of worthiness, but also strengthens the bonds of love in our communities.
But, as we learned in our little group exercise earlier, asking others for help isn’t always easy. How do we get better at things that are hard for us? Practice! Yep, I’m giving you homework…So lets talk a little about how we can really practice asking for help, how we can be intentional about it as a spiritual practice.
I think there are a few ways we could start. We can think one of our loved ones, think about all the gifts they have, and then ask ourselves, where might one of those gifts fit into my life? Or, as Paul might’ve put it, how can the foot’s gift for walking help the eye to see farther?
Or we can think about somewhere in our lives where we are struggling, whether its getting all our errands done, feeling appreciated, or getting our own glass of water in the night, and then ask one of our friends or loved ones to help us with that particular struggle. Either way, I think it begins with a process of discernment. In gratitude for the gifts of those around us, in relief for the gift of their presence in our lives, that we don’t have to face any struggle, big or small, alone.
Most importantly, we all need to remember that our limitations, our perceived imperfections, and our vulnerabilities are normal, that it’s ok to need help, it’s ok to want help, that we’re not rocks, we’re not islands, nor were we meant to be. God crated us to be humans, and loves us in all our humanity. My assignment for you is that this week, you practice, at least a couple times, letting yourselves off the hook for not being perfect, opening yourselves to this scary way of trusting God and trusting neighbor. Let’s be the body of Christ together. Will you help me?