SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV'D ALLAN B. WARREN III AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, JULY 24, 2011, THE SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

From St Paul writing to the Romans:

The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. (8:26)

People are rarely drawn to do things they think they don’t do well. If you’re good at something and know that you’re good at it, doing it is a pleasure. If you’re not, it’s a disappointment and a pain. Unless, of course, it’s something you want to do like learning to play tennis or to speak another language. In such instances practice is supposed to make perfect, and people will keep at it with that end in mind.

But what if it’s not something we want to do, but rather something we think we ought to do? Well, in that case, the motivation is not nearly so strong. In fact, it may never become anything more than an idea in the mind. For many people – and I include myself – prayer is one of those things we know we ought to do, and we try it from time to time out of obligation, never quite sure whether or not we’re getting it right.

This reminds me of a line from The Ruling Class, a movie made in the 1970s. It starred one of my favorite actresses, Coral Brown, and one of my least favorite actors, Peter O’Toole. O’Toole plays a nutty English aristocrat who has just inherited a fortune and who, by the way, thinks that he is God. “But how do you know that?” someone asks him. “Well,” he answers, “whenever I say my prayers, I find that I am talking to myself.”

I know how that feels. I haven’t come to the same conclusion, but I do know how that feels, and I suspect that many of you do too, and that feeling may prevent us from praying. It seems, or rather it feels as if our prayer is going nowhere, and we give up.

But feeling and faith are not the same, you know. Feelings are fickle. They can mislead us and discourage. If we expect every moment of prayer to be a feeling, an experience of exaltation and a transport of spiritual delight, then disappointment is in store for us. Even the mystics of the Church, who did indeed speak of times of exhilaration and ecstasy in prayer, spoke also of times of dryness when God seemed distant, if not altogether gone.

And from the Epistle this morning it seems that Paul, the Apostle, also knew something about this. “For we do not know how to pray as we ought.” It is startling to hear that from Paul. Paul, who seems so confident in his faith, so certain of his conversion. Paul, courageous enough to face persecution and prison and finally death in order to preach and proclaim the Gospel. What a surprise to hear such an admission from Paul. “For we do not know how to pray as we ought.” How can a man of such faith admit to such a failure?

He does so, because in this, as in all of Paul’s thought, human failure is where we begin. Man failed to be and bear the image of God. Israel failed to obey the law of God and to fulfill the mission God gave to her. Those failures made necessary God’s act of salvation in Christ. And it seems that it is his own failure in prayer and our failure in prayer that opens Paul’s eyes to the deeper meaning of prayer.

The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. (8:26)

When we cry “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. (8:15 – 16)

The Spirit of God has been given to each of us in our baptism. Paul believes that. And the Spirit of God is alive and active within each of us, Paul believes that too. And so Paul’s understanding of the deeper meaning of prayer is this: that the Spirit joins himself to our spirit and offers prayer to the Father. When we call on the Father, when we beseech the One who is “Abba”, Father to us, through us the indwelling Spirit cries “Father! Abba!” as well. And this means, as Paul sees it, that every prayer - no matter how feeble, no matter how imperfect in our own eyes - every prayer is made perfect by the prayer of the Spirit within us. When we pray and as we pray, the Spirit prays in us and through us and for us. What we lack is supplied by the power and presence of the Spirit. And so each prayer is a real action of grace and sanctification, the Holy Spirit of God making holy our feeble and imperfect yearnings.

* * * * *

“The Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (8:27) St Thomas Aquinas, who is always worth listening to, teaches that one very important aspect of prayer is that it is dispositive. And what he means by this is that the prayer of the Spirit within us disposes us to accept the will of God. The Spirit disposes us to accept the will of God, which is itself the answer to our prayer. Prayer is always answered, always, but sometimes, of course, the answer is “No.” (Sometimes, thank God, the answer is “No.” If we were granted all that we asked for in prayer, we would be in a pretty sad state indeed.) St Thomas tells us that when the answer is “No” and even when the answer seems to be “Yes,” the Spirit of God disposes us to accept the will of God, which is, again, the perfect answer to our prayer and which is a much greater “Yes” than we could ever imagine.

This is one way of making sense of that almost outrageous claim which Paul makes in the Epistle this morning: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” (8:28) It may not always seem to be so, but we know that through Christ God’s will and purpose for us is always our good. God intends nothing less than the good for those whom he loves. God never wills evil; He cannot. His will may not coincide with our will and then the answer to prayer is “No”; but that answer, “No,” is always His good will. In prayer the Spirit of God disposes us to accept His will and His answer and in prayer that same Spirit enlightens our spirit to see and to understand the good, the ultimate and perfect good, which is His will.

* * * * *

“Whenever I say my prayers, I find that I am talking to myself.” A clever line from a silly movie, but perhaps there is more to it than that. St Augustine teaches us that the reality of God is closer to us than we are to ourselves, and so perhaps this “talking to ourselves” which may seem a disappointment in prayer is in fact an essential part of prayer itself. Perhaps in talking to ourselves we are also addressing and communing with that intimate reality which is nearer to us than we are. I have often noticed that when I pray for something or someone day after day or week after week, my prayer changes, it is transformed, if you will. After a time of repeated prayer I find myself praying in a different way, and the difference is the answer to my prayer. That difference is God’s guidance and God’s comfort and the revealing of His will. Talking to myself, God talks back.

Praise Him !

Amen.