Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost
The little boy seemed perfectly formed. Five years old. His tanned skin contrasted sharply with the crisp white sheets, and hinted of summer fun around the pool, maybe rides at the local carnival. But something had gone terribly wrong. Unknown to anyone, he had carried a hidden, ticking time bomb in his chest since the day of his birth, and one day as he played with his brothers and sisters, it detonated. When I got there the breathing machine and the drips and tubes were simply marking time. He was gone.
His parents’ preacher had come in the night before, talking big, staking a claim for the boy’s recovery. Faith would raise this child up, he said, and the only thing that could ruin the boy’s healing was lack of faith. The preacher was home in bed when the child was pronounced dead, which was a good thing, because several of us present around that bed would have welcomed a few minutes alone with him. Instead we were left to watch, and wait, and weep.
Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective… the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.
What happens when we pray together? Why are we told to pray together? We have seen wonderful things happen when we prayed: Healings. Answers. Wisdom. Direction. And we have wrestled to understand when our prayers were not answered as we hoped they would be. Are our prayers only powerful and effective when we get the answer that suits us?
Surely prayer must be more than just getting what you ask for. Madeline L’Engle wrote about a time when her family gathered around her husband’s deathbed. A granddaughter asked what would happen if he died despite the prayers of the worried family. What would that mean? L’Engle assurred her, “All prayer is love. And love is never wasted.”
Jennifer Morrow put it like this: “Prayer is not powerful insofar as it is answered to our satisfaction. Prayer is powerful insofar as it is uttered…shared. Prayer does something to the pray-er. Prayer does something in our relationships. Prayer does something to the community with whom and for whom we pray. As much as this passage is about prayer, it’s also about church: this place, these people, these relationships, and the tremendous good that comes into being when we pray.”
C.S. Lewis used to say, “Prayer doesn’t change God; it changes me.” I hear that, but I also believe that sometimes prayer also changes things. Prayer changes circumstances. Prayer changes the created order. And sometimes prayer doesn’t seem to make much of a dent in the people and situations that drive us to our knees, but the act of praying together helps us as a community of faith get where we need to be. “All prayer is love. And love is never wasted.”
So let us pray what my friend James Street calls “implicating prayer.” Prayers that assume the participation of the one praying. Prayers that call for meaningful relationship. Prayers that say, “I’m willing to be a part of God’s answer for this person I’m praying for. I’m willing to be here for the joy of victory, the agony of defeat. I’m willing to lay hands on one who is sick and pray our best wishes for health; I’m willing to sit silently with those whose prayers weren’t answered in quite the way we all had hoped they would be.” I’m willing to hear the songs of joy; I’m willing to receive the prayers of confession. I’m in. I’m implicated. I’m a part of it all.
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.