May 29, 2016 “ 2 Pentecost, Proper 4C
1 Kings 8:22-23,41-43; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
Only speak the word and let my servant be healed.
Who do you pray for and how do you pray for them? Who prays for you and what might they be praying for?
About 30 years ago I became rector of my first parish and pretty quickly found one parishioner in particular who seemed to be at odds with me on a consistent basis. Some of that conflict was no doubt due to what he was dealing with in his own life. But at least half of our problem was because of me. My growing edges, shall we say, were a little sharper than they needed to be and Arthur and I had a hard time with each other. I didn’t do things his way and I took some delight in that. Two things helped our relationship survive. One was softball. I was a pretty good shortstop and he was a pretty good pitcher. The main thing that helped us survive, however, was prayer and Arthur taught me a whole lot more about prayer than I ever taught him.
Arthur and I served together on a Cursillo staff several years after I became his new rector. We were both late to the first staff meeting and I arrived to find that Arthur and I had been assigned to be prayer partners for the several months that we would be working together on the staff. Great, I thought. How in the world is that going to work? The way I handled that at first was just to ignore it. I knew I was supposed to be praying for him but aside from the occasional God you really need to work on this guy prayers, I didn’t pay much attention to our designated partnership.
When we got to the Cursillo weekend, I had to give one of the first big talks and Arthur and I were supposed to go into the Chapel and he was supposed to pray for me while I was standing there and then he was supposed to stay in the chapel and keep praying for me while I went and gave my talk. As we stood in front of the altar in the chapel, Arthur chose to pray for me silently rather than with words which, at the time, led me to wonder if he might be praying for fire to come down and consume me on the spot. In a few minutes I left to give my talk. As I left, Arthur knelt down on the floor.
About 30 minutes later, after I had finished the talk, I was brought back into the chapel and there was Arthur still kneeling on that floor. The floor was carpeted so it wasn’t like he was kneeling on razor blades but still it caught my attention. Here was a guy who seemed to hate my guts and he knelt on the floor for a half hour for me. Even if he did pray the whole time that fire might descend and destroy me, I was pretty impressed. I began to consider Arthur as a man of prayer and I began to consider that he would actually pray for me. There’s no rosy end to that story. Arthur may still hate my guts, I really don’t know, but I know he’s prayed about it and maybe he even continues to pray for me. I find him popping into my prayers still.
Something else happened at that Cursillo. We had a Communion service in the middle of the weekend and invited people to pray for healing for themselves or someone else. Four of us on staff had stations in the four corners of the room. My station had an old fashioned prayer desk much like the ones here in the chancel. I was to stand in front of the prayer desk and people were to come and kneel at the desk and name a need for healing. I would anoint them and offer a prayer. Simple priest stuff. The first person came and knelt down and, instead of naming a need for healing, she started crying. Softly at first but then tears started streaming down her cheeks and I watched as they splashed onto the desk. I don’t know how many people came to that prayer desk that day. Maybe 20. But most of them were crying. So I spent a while that afternoon watching tears drop down onto that prayer desk, the next person’s tears mingling with the last one’s, until it reached the point that the tears formed a little channel on the lip of the desk and started dripping off the desk onto the floor. Now I’m a pretty cynical guy but that got to me and some of my own tears got involved.
Still when I think of prayer, I think of that prayer desk. Our prayers flow, even if they aren’t articulated in well-formed words, and God soaks up those prayers and maybe even adds some of his own tears.
Still when I think of prayer, I think of Arthur. We can pray for others even when they confound us. We can pray for others even when we hate their guts. Those prayers help us survive. They help us heal and grow. We don’t always know exactly what to pray for or how to pray, yet we pray almost like we breathe or like we cry. It just happens because we’re wired to do it.
A centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant. Only speak the word and let my servant be healed. It sounds so faithful, so certain. I wonder how long it took the centurion to get to that place. How long might he have been confounded by his servant’s illness? Had he spent a long time shedding tears over his servant? Maybe he was just a faithful, certain kind of guy. Or maybe he learned that from the community of faith in which he worked. He wasn’t a Jew but he had spent months or years building the Jewish synagogue. Maybe their faith rubbed off on him. Maybe as he built a house of prayer he came to be a man of prayer. Maybe his servant was valuable to him for financial reasons only. Or maybe he was valuable to him because he cared for him personally. I’m assuming his life and his circumstances were probably just as complicated as yours and mine. And he asks Jesus for help because he knows he cannot heal by himself and because he has some sense of hope that Jesus can.
In our prayers, those articulated and those just felt, we don’t wake up a sleeping God and bring his attention to something he hasn’t noticed before. We’re not bargaining with an angry God. We’re turning to a power higher than ourselves and asking for help because we can’t do this life on our own. As we pray we find that God is already at work. Prayer is like entering into a conversation with God that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are already having. We become part of that holy conversation and we find the healing that we most need, for ourselves and for others.
Life will throw you to your knees from time to time. And there we find the great healing power of our Lord Jesus Christ.