St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene Episcopal Church—affectionately nicknamed "Two Saints"—is a diverse, joyful, and progressive congregation in the heart of Rochester, New York. We are an inclusive community of people, a family in faith who want to hear God’s word and follow Jesus in our daily lives. We feel strengthened by our diversity and by our unity in the breaking of the bread. Together we strive to be loving and forgiving towards ourselves and others. We try to honor all of God’s creation and not to be the instrument of our own or another’s oppression. We reach across our differences to embrace and support each other in nurturing corporate faith life. Together we use our talents in ministry to the urban community that encircles us, with God's guiding hand and blessing.
A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
July 28, 2019
Text – Luke 11:1-13
The central focus of today’s gospel is prayer. The idea of prayer got me to thinking of Mother Anita Schell, who was the rector of the parish in Bennington, Vermont that sponsored me for ordination. She talked about a book she read by Anne Lamott titled Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. So, I quickly ordered a Kindle electronic version of the book to read on my tablet. Anne has a no-nonsense take on things spiritual. Her language feels like talking with a best friend who doesn’t have to watch what they say.
Anne says prayer needs to be kept simple. Help. Thanks. Wow. (1) “Prayer,” she says, “is private, even when we pray with others. It is communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding. Let’s say it is communication from one’s heart to God.” (2) Prayer is about a relationship to someone who can hear us in our silence. (3)
Help prayers are when we ask for something. We look around us and find the world in a royal mess. We pray for help that it might change. In our prayer we might rail against God in asking for God’s help to make things right. Say you have a friend who has a serious life-changing illness that you ask God to help. And while asking for God’s help we might be courageous enough in the strength of your relationship with God to ask, “If You have a minute: What on earth could You be thinking?” (4) What were you thinking by sending illness to a young mother? Help me understand this situation.
Thanks prayers are for those times when we are grateful for some bit of wonderful that comes our way. Thanks prayers can be the exuberant “Thankyouthankyouthankyou.” It is the prayer of having dodged whatever bullet the world seems to shoot at us. ““Thanks” can be the recognition that you have been blessed mildly, or with a feeling as intense as despair at the miracle of having been spared. You say Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou: My wife is going to live. We get to stay in this house. They found my son: he’s in jail, but he alive; we know where he is and he’s safe for the night.” (5)
Wow prayers are those that come from the experience of beauty or of destruction. It could be witnessing the birth of a child or of seeing the suffering of those in detention camps on our southern borders. Wow is what we instinctively pray when we hear beautiful music, or see a great work of art.
My memory takes me back to a time when the power of prayer was made known to me. It happened during a day as a resident chaplain in a large Level I trauma center and teaching hospital. On my list of pastoral visits, there were the usual stops in the several areas of the hospital that I was assigned. There was a notation beside a name – “patient will be given a poor prognosis today and may need support.” The referral for pastoral care was not from the patient but was from a nurse. This type of referral was not unusual. I would soon find out that this would be one visit that would make an impression on me.
Sometimes a chaplain goes into a situation knowing more than the patient. It is not for me to give the patient news that they have not received from a doctor. I had to allow the conversation to get to a point where it was clear the patient the patient had gotten the diagnosis or had not. During our conversation and my doing a lot of deep listening, the patient said she needed help coming to terms with her cancer diagnosis. She knew for a long time that something was physically wrong with her. Now she knew. Her husband on the other hand knew and was submerged in a deep river called “denial.”
Her husband did not want to hear the “c-word” and would not speak to his wife about it even though she was lying in a hospital bed. She warned me that if her husband should show up, that I was to say I was part of staff checking on her care and not to mention that I was from the Pastoral Care Department. He did not believe in God. The patient described herself in a way that is now all too familiar - she was, “spiritual but not religious.
I let her lead the conversation and I learned about her family and how her and her husband thought they were entering a stage of their life where they could prepare for retirement from their jobs. Her husband, a construction contractor in his spare time was building them a new house. The patient called it her dream house because it had everything she ever wanted in a house. For a few moments the cancer diagnosis was forgotten while she described her dream kitchen and its appliances.
She asked me what a chaplain does as she had never heard of the term. I explained that my role was first to meet people where they were in terms of their faith or no faith, I was to be a listener more than a talker, and I was to present to patients such as herself who had received life-changing news. She asked me about my faith journey which I shared briefly. And on that note, I offered another visit if she wished. She replied, “I would like that.”
The next day when I went to see the patient, I noticed that there was an anxiousness about her that was not present during our first visit. Perhaps the reality of the terminal cancer diagnosis was making a home within her. She wanted to know about life after death to which I replied, “Why don’t you tell me what you think happens after we die.” While I was listening, I thought of my mother who died from cancer – that happens when you work as a chaplain – stories from your life cross paths with those stories of the patient. I mentally drifted back to the patient’s understanding of what happens at the time of death. She asked me what I believed. I told her I think it is an adventure that awaits all of us. It must be a good adventure because no one has come back to complain about it. She laughed and I laughed. But I shared that I believed that death will not be the final word, that life is eternal. We talked about God and how she imagined God.
Then she asked me a question, “I don’t know how to pray. Would you teach me?” I said that I would help her learn to talk to God. I said it would help to think of prayer as a conversation from the heart to God. Most importantly, I told her God had been waiting all her life to have this conversation and that he was going to so happy to talk with her.
The patient wanted to ask God for one thing only. She wanted to be able before she died to spend one night in her new house. It seemed, she told me that her husband who could not believe the love of his life was to be no more was frantically hoping against hope that completing the house would stop his wife’s illness. Sometimes prayer is hoping against all odds that all will be well. Hope might not have been a cure, but it was close enough for the time being.
She learned to pray and after that visit I never saw her again. I was given a gift through this encounter. This visit helped to expand my soul. I learned the importance of not taking prayer for granted. Maybe that was God’s answers to my prayers. When I look back on this experience, I realize it was prayer in the truest form – being attentive to the needs of another just because they are a child of God. In this experience of teaching another to pray the help, thanks, and wow of their life, I understood prayer. At our parting I was able to offer the fourth prayer of “Amen,” which means “and so it is.” (6)
My parting question for you to consider is who or what will you pray for today?
1 Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, [New York, NY] Riverhead Books, 2012, location 45.
W & I will meet in the second floor lounge of Tyler House.