By the Reverend Dr. Warren Crews
Our Psalm is an anguished prayer. The psalmist is wrestling with God to vindicate himself against his enemies. It is deeply personal! It reminds us that even God’s faithful people must deal with adversity. Don’t we deserve God’s help? But, in the end, the psalmist prays that what he wants most of all is the satisfaction of experiencing God face to face.
In the Gospel lesson, Jesus has withdrawn for prayer. But, as was so often the case, the disciples interrupt him with a practical question: what to do about the hungry crowd following them? Should they send them away into town to find food? Too expensive for them to feed the crowd, they warn. Jesus surprised them with one of his most spectacular miracles, the feeding of the five thousand! This was one of the powerful ways that Jesus let his disciples experience his divinity, thus their opportunity to meet God face to face, up close and personal as we like to say. Sometimes our prayer requests get answered in very unanticipated ways!
Our two stories and psalm raise some important questions about the purpose of prayer. If you ask most people what they pray about, the top answer usually is some version of making requests of God for the well-being of others and of ourselves. A second answer is often thanking God for what is going well in our lives. A third answer is confessing our failures. Rarely, do I hear people (including myself) saying it is about just wanting to rest in God’s presence, which is one meaning of meeting God face to face. So, I want to propose that these stories are not really so much about asking for the right things, as they are about faithfulness, about trusting God’s promises. A trusting faithfulness is the key to a more intimate relationship with God.
I want to end with a story that shaped my understanding of the mystery of God’s purposes and how our prayers fit into that mystery. When I was newly ordained, one of my first assignments was to visit a parishioner in the hospital dying of cancer. Now, I had been taught that in such situations of a person being so critically ill, the priest should visit briefly, offer a short prayer for healing, and then soon leave. So, I entered the room and asked her if I could offer a prayer for her. To my surprise, she said “of course, but I don’t want you to pray that I be healed of cancer, but rather pray that I have a good death. Meanwhile, I want to enjoy every minute I have left. So, why don’t you sit down and tell me all about yourself.” And so, I did, and she was very pleased. Afterwards, I learned that she had a steady stream of visitors wanting to fulfill her request for joyful moments. Her faith in God’s good will for her was so tangible that many people wanted to experience it. That was her real healing, and it participated in God’s will for her. It was also her great spiritual gift to all her visitors.
That story is a mighty witness to all of us for how our prayers are meant to line us up more and more to be what God wants us to be. God is just and merciful, and God also wants us all to be God’s just and merciful agents in our own circumstances. That does not happen overnight. It takes persistent living in our Christian community to sustain our efforts and to expand them to include the communities around us, including those different from us, especially the poor and oppressed. It helps to immerse ourselves in the Holy Scriptures, which teach us about the breadth of God’s justice and mercy. Furthermore, to discover God’s specific will for us personally can often lead to a real wrestling match, like it did with Jacob. True, but, even if we must limp along with our spiritual hip joints out of socket, persist we must, because God’s promise is that God will reward us with a peace and joy that passes all human understanding. That reward is nothing less than a taste of what it means to rest in God’s presence. That is God’s final “yes” to us, the ultimate goal of all our prayers for ourselves and for all humankind. AMEN.
The Reverend Dr. Warren Crews is co-priest in charge at St. John's.
Various members of the St. John's congregation contribute to this blog. For editorial suggestions, contact Jeff McIntire-Strasburg at firstname.lastname@example.org