Sermon by Rev. Deborah Sunoo
When it comes to prayer, I have a lot to say.
I don’t mean I necessarily have profound insights about prayer. I mean when I’m talking to God, I have a lot to say. Long lists of requests, concerns, petitions for God’s help on behalf of people I care about. Things I’m grateful for too, and confessions when I know I’ve messed up, and expressions of awe and wonder at God’s amazing creation, or at the grace-filled surprises God slips into any given week. When it comes to prayer, I find I have a lot to say.
I believe God welcomes all of those things in our prayers. But what I’ve just been describing is more of a monologue than a dialogue. If you’ve ever been with someone who barely seems to come up for air when they’re talking to you, just nonstop words, not pausing long enough to listen to any response you might wish to offer… I wonder if that’s what my prayers sound like to God sometimes? I take a deep breath, dive in, and once I’ve said everything I want to say, I sign off with an “Amen” and the conversation is over. God never had a chance to get a word in edgewise!
I actually believe God is speaking to us all the time. But to hear God’s voice, we need to listen.
I was recently introduced to a marvelous animated video about God’s call to Abraham in Genesis 12. God tells him: “Go from your country… and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you… and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” The video creators wonder aloud: Why did God choose Abraham in particular to receive this call? And the answer they offer is fascinating. Drawing right into their animation God’s words themselves (in Hebrew even; it’s a Jewish video) – the words float down from heaven toward a great multitude of people, but bounce off the heads of everyone else in the crowd. Abraham alone hears God’s call not because he’s inherently better than anyone else – the call was extended to everyone - he’s just the only one listening. The animators whimsically draw Abraham with huge ears, and even at one point an antenna on his head, showing us he’s ready toreceive whatever messages from God may be coming his way.
Which only begs the question: is my antenna up? Are my ears as big as Abraham’s (metaphorically speaking)? When God’s sending a message, am I tuned in well enough to hear it? Or am I like the others in that crowd of animated characters, heads down, focused on their phones, headphones in their ears… even if it’s not actually my phone I’m attending to but any number of other priorities in life. So many things can keep us from hearing the messages God’s sending our way. Work. Family life. Even busying ourselves with God talk and church work can sometimes keep our lives so full we forget to actually listen for God’s voice.
Listening to God may be a little outside our comfort zone, especially if we’ve been taught that prayer is mostly about communicating our thoughts to God; that we have the big speaking parts, and God’s our audience.
Fortunately there are tools available to help us listen. So as a special gift to all of you who turned up for worship on Memorial Day weekend, I want to tell you first about my new favorite thing… and then about a fantastic opportunity coming up later this year, both of which have to do with listening to God.
First, my new favorite thing. I was recently introduced to a phone app called Pray As You Go. The idea behind it is so simple yet so powerful. Each day I just block out about 10 minutes, push ‘play’ on the app, and chimes or church bells will start ringing, calling me to prayer. Then a beautiful piece of sacred music plays. So far in the month or so I’ve been using the app, I’ve heard everything from new settings of old hymns, to word for word psalm texts accompanied by guitar, to an Irish tune accompanied in the background by the chants of French monks, to a song of praise by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a South African a capella ensemble. Today we heard from the Kiev Chamber Choir. Then a Scripture text is read, and since the app is produced in England it’s read with a British accent which at least for me is a fun bonus. Then a few questions for reflection are asked as gentle music plays in the background – specific questions designed to help us listen to God and reflect on what God may be trying to say to us that particular day. Then the passage is read again, allowing a second opportunity to hear anything God intends us to hear. And then a final prayer or blessing is offered, often starting with a single voice, and adding other voices to the mix as it builds, then concludes. You can download and save favorite days, which I’ve done a number of times so I can listen to those pieces of music again anytime I wish. This also means if there’s ever a day when their particular musical or Scripture choices don’t seem to be speaking to me for whatever reason – which happens occasionally - I can go back to a favorite day’s entry and replay it instead. There are all kinds of additional prayer helps on the app too.
It’s amazing how this one simple tool has begun transforming my prayer life from being all about talking to God, to making some room for listening too. And it doesn’t feel like a “have to” either, or even a “should”– it’s something I genuinely look forward to each day. I wonder what sort church bells I’ll hear – today’s had crickets and birds in the background, making me wonder where they were recorded. I wonder what song, what text they’ll include each day. They offer six entries each week, and I find I actually miss it on that seventh day. It’s been such a gift to me, and if it sounds like it would be helpful for you too, I encourage you to try it. Again, Pray As You Go is the name of the app. You can use it without a smart phone too, simply by looking it up on your computer. Let me know if you need any help finding it.
The second invitation is coming up right here at church later this year.
As some of you know, your Session (your church governing board) has been giving a lot of thought to how best to celebrate our 75thanniversary as a congregation next year, and one thing is clear to us. Rather than simply looking back and celebrating what God has already done here, we want to look forward and ask where God may be leading us in the next chapter of our life together. One of our elders, Scott Edwards, shared a beautiful word play several months ago that’s been guiding us in these conversations. Not only do we want 20/20 hindsight as we look back over the rich history of this congregation. We want 2020 foresight too – clarity about where God is calling us into the year 2020 and beyond.
We also know we can’t possibly achieve that 2020 foresight on our own. We need God’s help. So we’ve called on the leaders of Renewal Ministries Northwest – an organization that’s been working with a number of churches here in our presbytery. They’ll be leading a series of prayer retreats for us in the coming year. Two will be designed for the whole congregation; two for our church officers. Each will involve teaching us how to listen for God. How to recognize God’s voice. How to discern where God is calling us and leading us, both as individuals and as a congregation. They’ve got wonderful stories to tell of how this process has borne fruit in other churches; we’re eager to see what God has in store for us here. The whole process will run from September of this year through February of next year; the kickoff event will be a full day congregational retreat on Saturday, September 21st. I hope you’ll make every effort to join us that day.
Talking about God, doing things for God, speaking to God… it’s all important. At the same time, if you’re anything like me, those things may also come more naturally to you than listening for God’s voice. So I’m really excited to learn from our retreat leaders for whom things like listening and discernment are clear spiritual gifts. We don’t have to enter those prayer retreats with any prior experience. It’s their job to orient us to the whole project, as well as to offer us really practical, user-friendly tools to help us through it.
We know God is happy to hear our prayers everywhere and always. Whatever’s on our hearts, we can pour it out to God freely. God’s always there to receive it, God loves us through all of it, and I truly believe God appreciates our honesty and candor when we speak to God.
But I want my spiritual practice to allow more space for listening to God too. I hope you’ll join me in this. Because we know God’s Spirit can speak to groups as well as to individuals. So if there are important messages God’s sending our way here at Magnolia Presbyterian Church – and I firmly believe God has spoken and does speak and will continue to speak to us – then that means God’s words are out there floating all around us, just like those animated Hebrew words in the video about Abraham’s call. Let’s be sure God’s messages don’t bounce off unreceptive ears. The more antennas up the better!
In our text from Revelation we were reminded today that Jesus is standing right at the door to our hearts, knocking, waiting for us to invite him in. I imagine he’s hoping not only for a warm welcome but also for a two-way conversation. He seems to have in mind chatting around the dinner table, actually, when he says “I will come in and eat with you, and you with me.” (Revelation 3:20)
So in addition to our “please” and “thank you” prayers, let’s learn how to pray as Eli taught young Samuel: “Speak, Lord, for your servant[s] [are] listening.” (1 Samuel 3:1-10)