The Comfort of Prayers

Good morning.  Please open your prayer books to Page 332.  This is part of a Eucharist service that is rarely used anymore, but words that are certainly worth reading and remembering.  (If Bob’s here, read the following aloud.)  HEAR what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him.  COME unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.  God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.  HEAR also what St. Paul saith.  This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.   HEAR also what St. John saith.   If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins.

(Otherwise:)  Silently, read the words that come after “Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to him.”

Keep those words in mind this morning.

Today’s Old Testament lesson has the Israelites stopped at Mt. Sinai, and Moses is up talking to God.  He’s been up there over a month already.  Aaron is working to try to keep the peace among a people we would swear have ADHD as a whole.  It hasn’t been that long since God brought them out of Egypt, after hearing their cries of distress and prayers for deliverance.  And yet, they’re bored; they want something tangible to worship and make sacrifices to, to revel in festival.  They create a god of gold and forget the God who delivered them.

God’s anger in the face of such faithlessness was fierce, and He was ready to destroy them all, but Moses prayed.  He acknowledged what God had done for them, and reminded Him of the great leap of faith the people took in following him out, across a sea and into the desert.  He reminded God of the promises he made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the last of whom He renamed Israel, and whose descendants were now having such a problem with fidelity to their God.  And he begged God to forgive them, to remember His promises to their ancestors, and turn aside His wrath.  And God changed His mind.

    If anyone sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins.

In our Gospel reading, there’s a man being thrown into outer darkness because he didn’t wear the right clothes!  Or, if we read it allegorically, because he showed up, but he didn’t really participate with his whole heart, soul, strength and mind.  Maybe he came for the food.

How many of us look for the latest fad, latest gadget, latest iPhone, and worship at the altar of consumerism and technology?  When was the last time you actually participated in a conversation, the whole way through, without checking your messages, texts, tweets, etc.?  Well, here perhaps that’s a little more common, given our lack of cell signals half the time.  But if we do that to other people, are we guilty of the same thing the man without a wedding robe is?  Are we truly participating in our conversations with God?

Perhaps we’re too focused on the latest headlines – I looked up just a few last night:  Firefighters face strong winds in historic California blazes; Hepatitis Outbreak; California State of Emergency – hmm, perhaps we should be avoiding California.  Bomb threat sparks panic at La Guardia Airport; Xi Tightens Grip on China; Tesla fires hundreds.  So, just five headlines, and we have fire, disease, terrorism, despotism and unemployment.  Well, comparatively, losing your job doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?  And yet, we still have our worries about keeping a roof over our heads, feeding our children, helping our neighbors – particularly those whose houses burned down in this last fire season, or the guy who sells Kettle corn in Stein’s parking lot, who lost his entire rig.

I’d ask you to remember the words of Paul this morning:  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

So our prayer lists have grown longer.  But we have to wonder, where is God?  Is he hearing our prayers?  Last week we learned that God still speaks to us.  That we merely need to learn how to listen, and trust.  And trust in the face of such disasters – that’s hard to do.

I read some facts that an elementary school teacher discovered after 9/11.  Maybe this will give you a different way of looking at things.  The four flights could accommodate more than 1,000 passengers, yet there were only 266 aboard. None of the people who called a loved one on the hijacked planes mentioned that passengers were panicked, nor was there any screaming in the background.   Although the work day had begun in New York, and more than 50,000 people worked in the Twin Towers, only 20,000 were at their desks. The other 30,000 were delayed in unexpected traffic snarls, subway delays, commuter train delays – including an entire train from New Jersey stalled at a malfunctioning traffic light.  More meetings than usual were scheduled outside of the building.  It kept 30,000 people from their desks.

That’s a lot of coincidences.  Now, we know that God has given all of us free will, and you’ve all heard me talk about energy and matter being interchangeable states of being.  God loves us in whatever form of being we are, so why did He help guide so many people to be away from the Towers that day?  Because He created us, and we are His children.  Our lives matter to Him.  And while we mourned the loss of the 3,500 children He took home with Him that day, He mourned the loss of the 19 who chose to reject Him that day for all eternity.

    This is a true saying, and worthy of all to be received, That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

Now, many of you heard me complaining about a story I had to read last week for school, but eventually, the author got to the point.  The main character was so consumed with her own thoughts of depression and the troubles in her life, she didn’t have room in her thoughts for anything or anyone else.  The preacher in the story told her to turn to Christ, as Christ requested us to do, to find rest in Him, to share the burdens with Him and allow Him to give her strength.  We’ve all experienced times when we are weary, tired of the world, sick of what man can do to his fellow man.  That soul-sickness can only be healed by the Divine Physician.  We must actually rely on that strength when we feel weak; we must listen for God’s voice and be guided by it.  We must know that we are not alone, as the Psalmist said in Psalm 23.  And sometimes, we act as God’s hands, and help others find their way out of depression, weakness, addiction – we know that there is contentment in Christ, and company even when we are completely alone.  But we also need to recognize that as humans, it’s never a one-shot “immunization”.  Whether we, ourselves are the ones who are soul-sick, or someone else, we need companionship and encouragement to reinforce the decision we make to turn towards God, and away from the destructively consuming thoughts of depression, shame, addiction, and darkness.

Paul reminded us this morning:  Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

So why did we begin this morning with The Comfortable Words?  Well, when the earth was flat, and all the world was Catholic – okay, so maybe not that long ago.  Confession of sins and absolution provided by the priest were extremely important to the people.  You thought about what you were going to do, because at some point, you’d have to ‘fess up to the priest, and sometimes, his assignment of penance before absolution was brutal.  But it gave people pause; it made them think about their own actions, their own thoughts, and their sins.  It made them think about whether they wanted this on their conscience.  And while confession is still a sacrament in the Anglican Communion, it is one not often used.  Our confession is congregational, non-specific, and our absolution as granted by God is a blanket absolution for everything.  We don’t really have to examine what we do too closely, don’t have to think – what would God say, or perhaps more embarrassing to us, since we know in that amorphous way that God knows our sins, what would the priest think if they knew…

But when the Church of England, and other Protestant churches were organizing, people were still used to the idea of confession, and needing true absolution for their sins.  They weren’t sure, given that they no longer had the authority of the Pope behind them, that they were truly being absolved of their sins.  They worried, and in worrying, filled their thoughts with things just the opposite of what Paul talks about.

So the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1549, when the first Book of Common Prayer was written, Thomas Cranmer decided that we needed to emphasize God’s grace.  While people were worrying if their works were enough to get them into heaven, Cranmer reminded them, through the words of the Bible, that God’s love was a grace provided to us, deserving or not.  God had already provided us with the path to Him:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  That belief, our clinging to the promises of God, is the comfort Cranmer felt was necessary to remind us of.

I recently read a story that actually came out in The Anglican Digest many years ago. A bishop parked his car outside an old downtown church and saw the elderly priest of that church sitting outside on a bench. The bishop walked up to the elderly priest and asked if he could talk with him for a few minutes. The priest smiled and nodded. Then the bishop sat beside him and told the following story:

Quite some time ago now a small group of rather boisterous young louts, fresh from an afternoon’s drinking session, were walking past a little church. One of them drew the attention of his companions to a notice on the door, listing times of confession. Amid raucous laughter he suggested, “Why don’t we have a bit of fun? Let’s make a list of the worst sins we can think of and then draw lots as to who should go in and confess them. It’ll be a lark seeing how the poor old priest reacts.”

I’ve got a better plan, jeered a companion. Seeing it’s your bright idea, why don’t you put your money where your mouth is. I bet you $20 you don’t have the guts to do it. The young man tensed a bit but rose to the challenge. “Right,” he said, “let’s get working on the sin sheet.”

It wasn’t too long before the young man emerged from the church beaming, brandishing a slip of paper. “Well I’ve won the bet,” he said. “Here’s proof I’ve been to confession.” What’s that? asked his companions. “It’s my penance, handed to me by the priest himself.” What did he say? the others asked. “He didn’t say anything, just handed me the slip.” Well, said one, have you done your penance? “Don’t be silly. I don’t go for that nonsense,” he replied. Then I don’t pay you your $20, said his challenger…

The young man went back into the church, reading the priest’s note as he went—Kneel before the crucifix at the altar and repeat ten times: All this you did for me and I don’t care. “That’s no hassle,” he thought, making his way to the chancel. He reached the crucifix and knelt down. His eyes took in the nailed hands and feet and the infinite sadness in the eyes, then moved to the text below: Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.

He began his penance: “All this you did for me and I don’t care. All this you did for me and I don’t care. All this you did for me and…” About an hour later his friends, impatient, went into the church to find out what he was up to. They found him at the altar rail sobbing profusely.

“Well, that’s the story,” said the bishop. “Except for two things—I was that young man and you were the priest” (adapted from The Anglican Digest, Lent 1990, 10-11).

When we truly turn to God, when we show up at the wedding feast in proper attire, when we turn off our electronics and listen, when we pay attention, we realize that God has not left us to ourselves.  We have to be willing to put our burdens down at the Cross, to be filled with the strength God has promised us, to rely on God, stand back up and go forth to do God’s work.

COME unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.


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