Sermon delivered April 6, 2008.
There have been several moments in the past week when the words of prayer offered in our Lenten services have struck a deep chord of comfort and meaning for me. For instance, in the Salutations service, there is a prayer to the Virgin Mary— “O Lady, Bride of God, spotless, undefiled, incorruptible, most chase and Pure Virgin, who by your wondrous conceiving has united God, the Word, to man, and joined the fallen nature of our race to heavenly things; the only hope of the hopeless and the help of those who fight; the ready help of those who flee to you and the refuge of all Christians.” And in the Great Compline Service, we hear in Psalm 91: “He who dwells under the shadow of the Most High, shall abide under the shelter of the God of heaven. He will say to the Lord: ‘You are my support and my refuge, o My God; in Him I shall put my trust.’ For He will deliver you from the hunter’s snare and from every troublesome slander. With His broad shoulders he shall overshadow you and under His wings you shall rest secure; His truth shall cover you like a shield.”
Prayer is not just some ritual Christians do out of a sense of obedience and obligation. It’s not some kind of superstition— like “I didn’t do well on my job interview because I forgot to pray.” Or “I better pray hard so Johnny can win his soccer game.” Prayer isn’t something we just break out in times of crisis. And it is not just a tool we use in the church. Prayer is a gift from God to us His people. It’s a tangible way that we can feel enveloped in His love at any moment of our lives. Great Lent obviously affords us more opportunities to pray as a community, which we call worship, and the prayers of these services, many of them coming from the Psalms, are prayers that ask for comfort for lives that are beset with stress and worry.
Everyone has stress in their lives. Stress is brought on by the complexities of the world that we, the human being, have created. God did not create stress. Everyone has his or her deficiencies that cause stress. One is perpetually worried and anxious, another is sick, another is cranky and irritable, another is angry, another is disappointed, and so on. Prayer, both in church and in private, is the place where we address these deficiencies. Who has the most stress in the world? The lives that have little prayer in them. Which lives have the least stress? The ones that are most enveloped in prayer with God. Think of the most stressful jobs in the world— I once spoke to a firefighter, I would rank that among the most stressful jobs in the world. And this firefighter told me how in the midst of raging flame, inside his fire resistant suit, there is a world of peace that exists while he walks in a world of danger. And at the center of that world is not just the protection from his equipment, but there is protection from God. He told me that if the Lord could protect three children from fire, after they were cast into a fiery furnace by an ungodly king, as we read in the Old Testament book of Daniel, that the Lord will protect him as well.
When a person prays— again, a quote from the prayer to the Virgin Mary, “Receive my prayer. . and entreat your Son and our Lord and Master that He may extend to me His goodness and mercy. . .Be ever near to me for you are merciful, compassionate and gentle; in this life an ardent help and protection, defending me from the assaults of adversaries and leading me to salvation.”— How can a person not feel some sense of peace at that very moment, how can one not feel that they are in the shadow of the Almighty? I know from personal experience that every time I call my Spiritual Father and tell him I’m down in the dumps or having a bad day, the first question he’ll ask is “Did you pray today?” And my answer inevitably will be “no.” Is there a correlation between prayer and how we feel? Absolutely there is.
Many people involved in churches feel a lot like the disciples in this morning’s Gospel lesson, who were confronted with a child possessed by a demon they could not heal. In the case of us, many of us are confronted with situations we cannot control, with people that frustrate us, with circumstances that are unfair, even cruel. And at the critical moment, when they needed it the most, the disciples didn’t have the faith, the maturity, or the strength for the Lord to work through them. In fact the Lord told His disciples, “This kind of demon can only come out through prayer and fasting.” If the Lord’s inner circle had a hard time staying focused, it should come as no surprise when we too have trouble.
Prayer, along with fasting, is an essential expression of the life of faith. Prayer is when we commune with God in spirit and in mind, in thought and in emotion. Fasting is where we learn to temper our physical body, to learn to control a passion we all have for eating, and in learning to get control of our bodies, the hope is that we will also get control of our minds, which will open up our spirits to union with God. Prayer does not require intellectual skill, it doesn’t require a high IQ or a college degree. Psalm 50 tells us that the sacrifice to God is a contrite heart and humble spirit. This is what prayer requires.
Imagine a person sitting on a sidewalk shivering on a cold day. He has no jacket. He wraps his arms around himself and makes himself into a tiny ball hoping that he can get warm— but he is still shivering. And his thoughts go to a hope that someone will come and put a blanket around him. And as he is sitting there, about to abandon all hope, someone comes and puts a blanket around him and he feels warm all over— his heart is light, his spirit again has joy as his body is full of warmth. No, it’s not a fancy car or a wad of money— but it is exactly what he needs at that moment, warmth.
There are two lessons here— the first is that God is like that warm blanket that comforts us when our spirits have grown cold. And the second is that God is not like a fancy car or a wad of cash— He does not grant our fantasies, but sees to our needs. Hence when we pray to Him, we offer up words that ask for His help today, in the way that it is needed today— “Give us this day our daily bread” is not so much about bread as it is about God granting us our needs of today— like peace to calm the one who is anxious; strength to help the one who is sick; efficiency to help the one with too much on his or her plate; stamina to help the one who is tired; hope for the one who feels down.
There is something electrifying and exhilarating about fervent prayer. From childhood, I picked up a bad habit of referring to prayer time as “saying our prayers.” Like we say our prayers before eating, as if we must first offer homage to God. There are two verbs that seem appropriate regarding prayer, and “saying” is not one of them. We “pray” prayers or we “offer” prayers. We pray words of personal spiritual intimacy when we pray. We offer God a contrite heart and a humble spirit and in turn are enveloped in His warmth.
The book of Psalms offers 150 prayers that reach every human emotion. Psalm 50 captures repentance; Psalm 22 is appropriate when we feel that God has abandoned us; Psalm 142 is the Psalm for guidance when we are not sure. The Psalms predominate the services of Lent— the Great Compline, the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy and the Salutations. We will also hear them throughout Holy Week. The Psalms as prayers unlock our emotions and offer them to God.
Several people have asked me this Lent, “Can one be angry at God and still love Him?” The answer comes from the Psalms. Pray Psalm 22, which begins “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me? Why are You so far from helping me, and from the words of my groaning?” That sounds angry. How many of us have never become angry with our parents, our spouses or our children? And yet we still love them. We work through the anger. How? We keep showing up, we keep talking, we keep providing, we keep helping and eventually there is peace. Eventually there comes a point when there is love and joy where there once was anger and enmity. That works with our loves ones and that works with the Lord as well. Psalm 18 reads “I will love You, O Lord my strength. The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; My God, my strength in whom I will trust; my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised.” This is the ultimate goal in our relationship with the Lord— to see Him as our strength, our rock, our fortress. The one who keeps showing up, the one who stays steadfast even under the worst circumstances of life, ultimately finds the ultimate peace, the ultimate glory.
Just look at the Lord— betrayed, forsaken, beaten, tortured, killed and yet that love, that patience, resulted in ultimate glory. Saint Paul writes in Philippians 4:7, “The peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” There’s a difference between those who know God through prayer and those who don’t— and that difference is peace. There has rarely been a time that fervent prayer hasn’t brought peace and comfort to my soul. And as I mentioned at the beginning of Lent, there is a different between prayer and fervent prayer— prayer is said, fervent prayer is offered with a contrite heart and humble spirit. As we continue through the last two weeks of Lent and begin to turn our thoughts to the journey of Holy Week, I encourage you to pray, to pray the Psalms and to spend as much time as you can in this church, in the shadow of the Almighty, in fervent prayer, so that you too can not only reflect and learn but be enveloped by the peace of God that comes out with such great power in this Holy Church during this Holy Season.
I will close this morning’s sermon by praying a few verses of Psalm 33, the Psalm that ends the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy:
The eyes of the Lord are upon the just and His ears are open to their pleas; the face of the Lord is turned against sinners, to erase their memory from the earth. The just cried out and the Lord heard them, and He delivered them from all their trials. The Lord is close to the broken-hearted, and He will save the humble in spirit. Many are the trials of the righteous, but out of them all the Lord will deliver them. He protects every bone in their body; not a single one of them will be broken. The death of sinners is painful; those who hate justice shall be damned. The Lord will redeem the souls of his servants, and none of those who hope in Him shall be lost.
Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis is the priest of St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL and is the director of St. Stephen’s Summer Camp for the Metropolis of Atlanta.