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The Rev. James Weiss' sermon for The 8th Sunday after Pentecost, 7/30/2017

Sermon for the Eighth Sunday of Pentecost, Year A

The Rev’d. James M. Weiss

St. James’s Parish, Cambridge, 30 July 2017

Genesis 29: 15-28, Romans 8: 26-29, Matthew 13: 31-33 & 44-52


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


            Good morning. I am James, a member of the parish now and also for several years in the ‘80s and ‘90s. You are the parish who sponsored me for ordination and my love for this place and this people runs very deep. I cannot thank you enough and I am so happy to be one of you.


            Now, I don’t pray often enough or well enough. I’m not sure I know the right way to pray: there must be a method. And what should I expect from prayer anyway?

            Yes, you’re hearing this from me  -- but let me tell you how often I hear it from everyone: devout family members, friends with Gospel values, people seeking spiritual direction, and  -- yes -- other clergy. (I’m letting you in on a little secret here: clergy have as many issues with prayer as anyone else. )

            Perhaps that’s why our second reading is hands down one of the most popular selections from the New Testament. Why? I’ll try to get at it, but I’d be happier to hear how you have learned what prayer is. And indeed, people at St. James’s have a lot to teach each other about prayer. I am talking this morning about private prayer, the kind of prayer we open up to at home on our own – not the prayer of our small groups or of the great weekly shared prayer i at our Sunday Eucharist.


            Now first, listen up! Prayer is not chiefly about what we do: it is about what God is already doing in us, whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not. Prayer is like a radio program:  it’s going on already, the music flows all the time. Our task is to tune in and learn to listen. Or better, to move with the music. Or better yet, let the music flow through us and invite others to dance along.

            In other words, the proper subject of the question about prayer is not I, but God. Not “How should I pray?” but “How is God moving or acting or speaking? Is God maybe keeping silence?” As Paul reminds us : “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but … the Spirit prays for us with sighs too deep for words … and God searches our hearts …”  So God has found us even before we begin searching for God … and God can work around the holes in our souls.


            That’s the genius of Jesus’s vision in this morning’s Gospel: that God’s energy is at work unseen in our midst. When Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven, he is NOT talking about a realm to come after death. He means the slow advance of God’s reign here in our lives. God’s coming may be hidden like a mustard seed in the ground or like yeast in a lump of dough or like a treasure buried in a vacant lot -- but if we give it time to work, it grows in us and we grow with it.

            It changes the way we look at things, it changes who we are. An example of this familiar to many of us is the Twelve Step Program for people helplessly addicted whether to alcohol or drugs or gambling or sex or eating. Over and over again, I’ve seen peoples’ lives and families transformed by the Twelve Steps. Yet they describe their recovery not so much as something they did, but as something they let happen within them: they admitted a need and requested their Higher Power for help … one day at a time …

            Even when they fell off the wagon, the yeast of God kept working to build them up because “the Spirit [within them] intercede[d] with sighs too deep for words”.


            But what does it mean when we don’t receive what we pray for – when our seeds don’t become big shrubs, when we keep digging at a project or a person and can’t find the buried treasure? Well, that question puts us  in good company. St. Paul reminds us that prayer takes place in a context of becoming “conformed to the image of [Christ]”. Our requests to God may not fulfill our wishes but they do unite us more closely to God in Christ. In a sense the relationship itself is more important than the gifts we receive from it.

            Remember -- Jesus warned us that his task on earth remained incomplete and he needed each of us to carry it further. So in each of us Christ lives out another life – and we cannot expect any better than what he could expect.

            Whatever anxieties possessed Jesus’s soul and whatever evil powers befell him, he never lost the urgency of God’s justice and love pulsing through him.

            So let’s take our cue from Jesus. Prayer does not guarantee a desired outcome: it prepares us to meet any outcome .. trusting that God’s love can be active in it and God’s justice will go on … and receiving a new strength just as the Holy Spirit gave Jesus.


            This summer, on a trip to Norway, Glenn and I visited the museum of the Nobel Peace Prize, which is awarded in Oslo. What struck us was how many Nobel laureates were relatively unknown, in obscure situations, with minimal resources. Even after the Peace Prize, their work remained incomplete and in some cases doomed. Yet these people were mustard seeds and buried treasures who did change the landscape around them. Think of Malala Yousafzai, the 12-year-old Pakistani blogger whose near-assassination gave prominence to the right of girls to education. Or of Rigoberta Menchù,  the Guatemalan woman who kept fighting for the rights of Indians and indigenous people even as her government killed her family one by one, and yet she had the genius to fight also for a program of reconciliation.  Yes, and of Liu Xiaobo, whose struggle for human rights in China cost him his life this month.           

            I am reminded, too, of those boys whom Jodi Michalachki preached to us about a few weeks ago, the forty young  martyrs of Burundi, Hutus and Tutsis who protected each other in the face of death and protested “We are all children of God.”

            Hidden treasures every one – many still unknown, but resiliently at work for peace, health, and justice. Sitting there in Oslo, they reminded me equally of so many people right here in St. James’s who keep alive the fire of kindness and justice and caring and protest, burning in their commitments or jobs or volunteering or activism.

            St. Paul summed up  the point – and summed up the spirit of St. James’s -- so well: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress” and we might add, or cancer, or divorce, or the economy, or election results? No, as St. Paul goes on, “As it is written,‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ . . .   [Yet] I am convinced that . . . nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. “

            So what could our Twelve Step friends and Nobel laureates tell us about prayer and its outcomes?

            First, prayer is not about what we do. It is about tuning in and letting the God do … well, do whatever God needs to do. We won’t know until we settle down.

            Second, it helps to set aside time to pray, a regular period, regardless of everything. Once we come to prayer, our minds will fill up with random thoughts. So to tune in to the Spirit, we practice deep breathing and let those thoughts come and go like traffic on the street while we focus on a friend … Now make one clear request, “Dear God, what do you want me to feel or hear or know or do?” …

            And now let go … slowly read some brief passage from the Bible, from our Sunday lessons, from a poem … or gaze upon a work of art or something in nature … When your mind wanders – and it will wander --, bring it back to your breathing or your text or your view. Keep trusting that the Holy Spirit will guide you … perhaps simply into silence. Sometimes, of course, prayer is not all peace and consolation: sometimes, the Spirit may make us wrestle with something we’d rather ignore – wrestle with ourselves, wrestle with an unsettled relationship, or wrestle as Jacob did all night long with God’s own self.

            So much of prayer involves learning what to hang on to and what to let go. Have you ever noticed that the requests in the Lord’s Prayer are all passive requests, letting go of our world into God’s unpredictable timing:

            may your Name be held holy

            may your will be done our earth,

            may You feed us and keep us from evil.

            No matter what we pray for, no matter how bad the doctor’s diagnosis is, no matter how long a civil war tears a country apart, what God wants to give us chiefly – above all other good gifts – is God’s own self. God does not ask us to be successful, only faithful. And as Paul promises us,

“Nothing … nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

            Let me conclude with Mary Oliver’s poem about praying. She even takes Jesus’s image of an empty field with a buried treasure to remind us of who’s in charge when we pray.


It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”