December 6

A Life of Prayer

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 3:1-6

Click here to listen to the sermon only


Prayer is a precursor.   Prayer is a precursor to learning, doing, and being.  The life of prayer prepares the future’s way.  Precursors have powerful influence.

A couple of weeks ago we were invited back to the Cornell community, Ithaca NY, with whom we were in ministry 35 years ago.  The church there celebrated their 100th birthday, the anniversary of a community whose preachers had included John R Mott, some future deans and presidents of various schools, the husband of Pearl Buck, a former Cornell Sage Chapel Dean, and others.  Sometimes they got saddled with inexperienced young pastors, as well.  

This community, called the Forest Home Chapel, in Ithaca, models one future route for northern and extended northern Methodism, in three dimensions.  The church is liberal, a reconciling congregation, something of a given, given its history.  The church is well led, and prizes ministerial excellence with strong preaching, now offered by the Rev. Rebecca Dolch, a preacher of the first water.  The church is low overhead—no debt, modest building, adequate manse, and voluminous volunteer activity.  Theirs is the future–escaping fundamentalism, poor un-ordained leadership, and old, creaking, massive building structure.  In fact, they are a precursor, one route, one model for what will remain in the northeast in our tradition.

After the service, about 100 of us enjoyed a meal and memories.  Jan remembered serving as an interim director of the Nursery School there, for which three mornings her husband had childcare responsibilities.  He would sometimes show up, she recalled, coming over from the parsonage next door, and asking ‘what do I do now?’

As happens, that memory triggered the following:  here in Marsh Chapel, Boston, in 2010, I received a phone call from the New York Times.  That is not a daily occurrence.  ‘Were you the minister in Ithaca in 1980?’  Who wants to know, I asked.  ‘Was there a child care program in your church?’  I referred the reporter to the response given moments before.  ‘We have a senatorial candidate, a republican in Illinois, a Cornell graduate, who claims a background in early childhood education, and when pressed identified the program in your church as his employer.  The current director looked through records and found no evidence, but gave us your name’.  I will be sure to thank her, I replied.  ‘But what did you say was the candidate’s name?’  Mark Kirk.  I could give no evidence against or for his employment there, ‘possible but not likely’ I said in response.  So my sole offering, to date, to the New York Times, is the fairly lame phrase ‘possible but not likely’ or something similar.  (☺)

This week you learned of a vote on gun control in the US Senate in which just one, just one member of Senator Kirk’s party crossed the line to vote to strengthen gun controls.  That was Senator Mark Kirk himself.  I can imagine that his choice took some courage.  In that, he is precursor.  A precursor goes ahead, and has powerful influence on the future.  Kirk is one.  Maybe that Cornell education moved him.  Maybe he did work with kids in the church basement.  Maybe he heard something, inside or outside of worship, which stayed with him.  Maybe he remembered the primary precursor to the gospel, John the Baptist.

Lukan Baptist

Dressed in camel’s hair, with a diet of locusts and honey (though Luke omits to dress and feed him as Mark so does), John the Baptist is the precursor to Jesus.  You cannot get to Christmas without Advent.  You cannot come to Bethlehem except by way of the Jordan.  You cannot celebrate grace without hearing first the prophetic voice (though it is also good to be reminded that the prophetic is a part of the gospel but not the heart of the gospel (repeat)).  Every year, right now, the Baptist, out in the dark cold miserable mud-soaked Jordan River, stops us.  He stops you.  He says the one prayerful word of the precursor, the prophetic word: ‘Prepare’.  Then he calls the whole people to prayer:  to repentance for pervasive sin; to acceptance of pardon as the way out of evil and hurt; to assurance of grace.

Prayer is what comes before the rest, like Sunday morning is meant to come before the rest (of the week).  Are you getting off on the right foot week by week?

John the Baptist would want to know.  Look carefully at what Luke says about him.  See the Lukan Baptist, different from John the Baptist in Mark.   Mark, 20 years before, begins his gospel with the Baptist.  The gospel opens, ‘the voice of one…’  Not Luke.  Luke wants John put in particular context, 20 years later.  

(We want to hear the gospel in the gospels.  Luke says something different from what he borrowed out of Mark.  That should give us confidence, as we preach, to take the gospel in hand, and apply it to our own condition, our own time, as, well, the first gospel writers all did.)

So, Luke has a history that precedes the precursor.  This history, an orderly one, tells of the conjoint mysterious births of John and Jesus.  This history, an orderly one, gives singing voice to Zechariah (whose psalm we used today) and Mary (two weeks hence).  This history, an orderly one, acknowledges the days of Caesar Augustus and Quirinius.  This history, an orderly one, honors Joseph, and paints like El Greco shepherds in the firelight of the ‘smoking cradle’ (Barth).  This history, an orderly one, makes a little space for the childhood of Jesus, in woe and weal both, circumcision, presentation, growth in wisdom, and temple teaching.  Then, only, does Luke allow the Baptist to appear.  But even here, it is the orderly history that prevails: 15 years, Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod and Philip, unpronounceable regions,  eminently forgettable tetrarchs and priesthoods (‘a six-fold synchronism’, as Bultmann wryly remarks (HST, 362)).   Luke is making sure Jesus has his feet firmly planted in history, both of secular Empire and sacred Temple and an orderly history at that.   So, for us, our engagement with history, under the influence of the Gospel of Luke, matters, counts, lasts, is lastingly real.  More on this in a moment.

Prayer as Precursor

Our year at Marsh Chapel is given over to the theme of prayer, to the life of prayer, and we have spoken about what prayer is, and is meant to be for us.  But in the crusty spirit of the prophetic Baptist here in Luke, we might also want bluntly to say what prayer is not.  Prayer is not a substitute for work.  Prayer is not magic.  Prayer is not mindless, not rote or impersonal.  Prayer is a precursor to work, which shapes the worker, and makes work personal.  Prayer has the power, the influence of the precursor, like John the Baptist, out in the cold river mud.

Our Boston University Personalist Borden Parker Bowne wrote (in 1910!) as our friend Mark Davies reminded us this month,

There is a fancy that prayer alone is the great instrument of success.  This overlooks the true nature of prayer, and also the conditional form of human progress.  In all matters which God has made to depend on human action, that is not prayer, but irreverent impertinence, which pours itself out in verbal petition while neglecting to use the means which lie in our power.  To appoint a day of fasting and prayer to ward of cholera, while allowing the streets and houses and water-supply to reek with filth and all manner of insanitary abomination, would be more like blasphemy than prayer.  A farmer, lying on his back in the shade, while his fields remain unplowed and unsown, cannot truly pray for harvest.  In all cases where our activity is demanded works is a necessary part of prayer, or rather it is the form which true prayer necessarily takes one…Heaven’s ear is deaf to easy verbal petitions.  It is not until the whole soul is engaged that we can be said to pray.  Prayer in its purest essence is found in all action toward the desired object.  It is the pouring out of the whole soul, not only in word, but in act as well, for the attainment of what we seek (Bowne, The Essence of Religion)

Prayer is not a substitute for work.

Likewise, Paul Tillich wrote (in 1960!), as our congregant Dr. Kris Kahle in New Haven Connecticut reminded us this fall,

God’s directing creativity is the answer to the question of the meaning of prayer, especially prayers of supplication and prayers of intercession.  Neither type of prayer can mean that God is expected to acquiesce in interfering with existential conditions.  Both mean that God is asked to direct the given situation toward fulfillment.  The prayers are an element in this situation, a most powerful factor if they are true prayers.  As an element in the situation a prayer is a condition of God’s directing creativity, but the form of this creativity may be the complete rejection of the manifest content of the prayer.  Nevertheless, the prayer may have been heard according to its hidden content, which is the surrender of a fragment of existence to God.  This hidden content is always decisive.  It is the element in the situation which is used by God’s directing creativity.  Every serious prayer contains power, not because of the intensity of desire expressed in it, but because of the faith the person has in God’s directing activity—a faith which transforms the existential situation (P Tillich, Systematic Theology, loc. cit.).

Prayer is not a magical contradiction of the laws of nature or the movement of history.

Likewise, three days ago in this sanctuary we celebrated the life of Professor Abner Eliezer Shimony of Boston University.  He had been both a Professor of Physics and a Professor of Philosophy.  My, oh my! The music and memories of the day reflected a life of prayer, of mindfulness, embracing both physics and metaphysics, evoked these words from and about him:

Ideas matter and there is a deep beauty in pursuing them…The sense of wonder is the basis of learning…With Thucydides we need to ‘restore the sacred olive groves’…He worked both toward a peaceful coexistence of quantum mechanics and special relativity, and toward an understanding of the deepest secrets of the universe, to enhance a sense of wonder about the world, and sensitivity to the facts of the world.  Einstein and Whithead, science and spirit.

And a sense of humor:  ‘the reasons for studying Latin are many and good—but not easy to remember’ (☺).

Prayer is not mindless.

Prayer is not a substitute for work.  Prayer is not magic.  Prayer is not mindless.  Prayer is a precursor to work, which shapes the worker, and makes the worker mindful.  Prayer has the power, the influence of the precursor, like John the Baptist, out in the cold river mud.  I ask you, seriously and respectfully:  is yours a life of prayer? Do you let the waking hour be a waking hour, a prayerful precursor to the work ahead? Do you let Sunday be Sunday, a prayerful precursor to the work ahead?  Do you let Advent be Advent, a prayerful precursor to the work ahead?


It is in this spirit that Paul can write, ‘I am confident of this, that he would began a good work among you will bring it to completion’.  His words, prayerful words, are themselves precursors.   We come to church this morning drenched in sorrows, in the wake of terror east and west, Paris and California, and elsewhere.  We wonder how in the world honestly to face religious extremism and fully to stand beside our brothers and sisters of different faiths.  Some of us will gather tomorrow night at 6pm in the GSU to address just this issue.  We wonder how in the world to keep moving forward toward a public health cure for gun violence, when so little forward motion seems to occur, and the same blank stares and empty phrases follow yet another sordid, evil, awful slaughter.  Some of us will gather Wednesday evening at 7:30pm on December 9 at First Church Boston on Marlborough Street to address just this issue.   Nor are these the only issues of our time.  

In the gospel, we remain hopeful.  Real change is real hard but it happens in real time when people really work at it.  This is Paul’s commonwealth of the gospel, partnership of the gospel—weakly rendered in our NRSV as ‘sharing’.  My goodness.  ‘Sharing’  ‘Sharing’ is not the half of it.  It is Work!  Commonwealth! Partnership! Koinonia! You can if you think you can.   For example, we can move toward reduction in gun violence in our time, and this hour of sacrament and sermon, is itself a prayerful precursor to it.

I have seen change, good change, in these past few years.  I see unemployment rates now low.  I see two wars ended, with continued foreceful attention to containment abroad and protection at home (repeat last phrase).  I see the Gulf of Mexico cleaned.  I see Massachusetts style health care spreading out across the country.  I see Ebola defeated.  I see deliberation and détente with Iran.  I see civil rights for gay and lesbian people.  I see a global summit on climate change.  I see two vibrant Boston marathons since 2013, and another coming.  I see a growing awareness of the limits and perils of some newer technologies.  I see more and better conversation about race and injustice (it does matter what monuments you have on your campus plaza and lawn, and it helps to know their histories).   I see optimistic 20 year olds who just have never heard that it couldn’t be done.  It can be done.  Yes it can.  It just takes prayer as a precursor, and a prayerful human precursor or two.  Like that one lone Senator for Illinois, who got his start working in Methodist child care program—or did he?—high above Cayuga’s waters, who stepped up and stepped forward and stepped ahead.  Senator Mark Kirk did something, and as his former pastor—or was I?—I should be able to do something too.  Our engagement with history, under the influence of the Gospel of Luke, matters, counts, lasts, is lastingly real.

My grandmother in her eighties had a sign on her kitchen door.  It was her kind of prayer.  ‘Do one thing.  There.  You’ve done one thing’.  Prayer is a precursor.   Prayer is a precursor to learning, doing, and being.  The life of prayer prepares the future’s way.  Precursors have powerful influence.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Leave a Reply