Sermon preached at St. Christopher's by-the-Sea, April 22, 2011
What do you pray for? For what do you pray? In quiet; in darkness; on days like today. The still of your heart. Time to reflect between you and your Maker. And he’s listening. When all of the names of the sick, your loved ones and family, your friends, have come into mind and gone out again, when your immediate worries and prayers for protection depart from this earth, lifted up, and there’s still some time left, for what do you pray?
I was walking the stations of the cross one Friday a few weeks ago. Some of you were there. Here. We walked together the fourteen stations of this day, Good Friday. A kind of practice for this day. A steeling of the soul. From the station at which Jesus was condemned to die to his falling on the road, to the man who carried Christ’s cross beside him, to the women he met on the way, to the stripping of his garments from his body, to the death and the cry, the vinegar and the blood. Jesus in the arms of his mother. The silence of the tomb.
Fourteen all together. Fourteen stations.
Each with a certain order. A kind of painful monotony. We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, we said. Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.
Each station, that’s how we started. Then you read the story, quoting Scripture. Invited us to pray.
Fourteen times, fourteen Scriptures. Fourteen prayers you offered.
That’s what I noticed on that particular Friday. The prayers.
What do you pray for, what does one ask for, in the shadow of the cross and this day?
It’s not all rhetorical. I made a list that night, when I got home, of each of the things we asked God for at the end of each station. Call it a collection of cruciform - or cross-shaped - prayers. Allow me to share them, briefly: the petitions of the prayers from those fourteen stations:
That we may find the way of the cross to be the way of life and peace; that we would learn to walk in this way. That God would grant us courage to take up our cross and follow. That the Lord would grant us strength and protection to support us in dangers, especially our temptations. That we may share in this passion and so also share in resurrection joys. That God would bless those who give themselves to the service of others, that they may minister with wisdom, patience, and courage to the suffering, friendless, and needy. That we may be strengthened to bear our cross, and changed into his likeness. That we may walk in the way of his suffering, also share in his resurrection. That we may be taught to mourn our sins, and to leave them, so that the results of our iniquities would not be visited upon our children and their children. That we may so glory in the cross of Christ that we would gladly suffer shame and loss for Jesus’s sake. We prayed for grace to accept the suffering of the present time. We asked that the Spirit would clothe us in love, so that our hands would so share God’s love that others would know Jesus. That we may die daily to sin, and walk in resurrection joy. That we would follow in faith where Christ has led the way.
Let me be the first to confess that, left to my own devices, these are not the things I would pray for. For starters, they’re a little redundant. More than that, left to myself, the days I would pray to suffer shame and loss are few and far between. Most of the things that we prayed for that day are things I wouldn’t have come up with on my own. As a child, when I prayed, I might have asked for a bicycle. Or more seriously, more grown up, prayed for a less stressful day, less trying life circumstance, healing for my mother, reconciliation with my brother; even on my best days something along the lines of a materially and peacefully prosperous world for the all of us.
But with the God of all Creation before me; with the ear of the Almighty listening to me; in the still of my soul, and the darkness of this day, with this day as my chance to open my honest desires, the requests of my heart before His face, this is what I ask for. This is that for which what I pray. That I would be changed; taught to lament; made to suffer; and serve; even sacrifice. Die daily to sin. Made to walk the way of the cross, and walking it, find it to be the way of life and peace.
As opportunities to get what I want go, the prayers I offer this day are a waste. Don’t make sense. Ask for healthy children, healthy heartbeats, healthy 401ks. And long life. But the way of the cross?
And yet, because it is here, beneath this cross, that I find him, for what else can I pray? This man on this day is my center. And my whole life revolves - or is learning to revolve - around these moments and these days and the one who hangs before me here. Here I learn, here I see, the face of the living God. For what else can I pray?
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
And God’s People said, “Amen.”