Sunday ~ May 29th, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
I knew a pastor who said they didn’t have the gift of prayer. “You call yourself a pastor and you say you don’t have the gift of prayer! Preposterous! How can you not!” I mean after all, isn’t that a prerequisite for pastoral ministry? And if you’re not blessed with it before isn’t it something they teach you in seminary?
Well, the pastor went on to explain that he developed this mantra early on in ministry. He found that even before he entered professional ministry he was frequently asked to pray at every church meal and at every church function. Once he was ordained, his family asked him to pray with much more regularity at family meals. All of a sudden, he realized he was the delegated human hotline to heaven; he had become the “official” pray-er.
It wasn’t long after I had announced to my home congregation that I felt called to pastoral ministry I started to notice the same thing. People began to ask me to pray in many situations simply because I was going to be a pastor. “Won’t you offer the blessing, Neil?” “Neil, would you begin this gathering with prayer?”
For some reason, maybe even subconsciously, over the years people either think that my expressed requests to God have a better chance of be granted because I am a pastor (really folks?), or they feel embarrassed to say an incorrect prayer in front of a pastor (As if there is such a thing as an incorrect prayer!)
In our gospel reading this morning, a centurion heard about Jesus, and apparently believed that Jesus would be able to help him. The centurion had a highly valued servant who was very ill close to death even. And while he believed Jesus could help him, for some reason the centurion did not go to Jesus directly. Was he embarrassed, did he feel it improper, or was he just too busy?
Whatever his reasoning, he first called the elders, the distinguished religious leaders of the synagogue in Capernaum, and he asked them to intercede for him. The elders then went to Jesus with a list of reasons why this particular centurion’s request should be granted even though he was a Gentile. He loved the Jewish people and helped them build a synagogue. Jesus was apparently impressed enough to go and meet with this fellow.
As he approached the house, Jesus was met by a group of the Centurion’s friends. They too asked for Jesus to heal this man’s servant. Once again, this centurion sent someone else to talk to Jesus. First he sent the religious leaders with high reputations. Then he sent his friends. Perhaps he felt he could not talk to Jesus directly.
Isn’t this the case with us sometimes? We can pass our prayer requests to the pastor, thinking that she will have the best chance of getting a response from God. Then we will tell our friends about that prayer request. Are we thinking that if we hand it to someone else, it is no longer our own responsibility? But how often is it that we actually talk to Jesus directly ourselves?
I believe that perhaps this is what the pastor wanted to refute with his standard response to every public request for prayer was “I don’t have the gift of prayer.” Perhaps this pastor knew that if every time he was asked, he actually took away an opportunity for someone else to communicate with God. Surely God does not discriminate; God hears each of us as we pray!
This might have been what the centurion needed to hear, to hear that you do not need an intermediary to talk to Jesus. No matter how unworthy you feel, you can have direct communication with God yourself. As we read in this story, the centurion doesn’t actually ever speak with Jesus directly. We don’t hear that they ever actually come in contact with each other.
So we might expect there to be no response, right? Isn’t this the way? After all, if you don’t have the courage ask me face to face, why should I help you? Looking at this from another perspective, are we not cautioned about being triangulated into a situation? True, but this is human thinking, a human attitude, not God’s!
In the case of the centurion, his prayer tag team worked. Somehow, Jesus still directly answered his circuitous method of prayer. The final verse reads“When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant in good health.”
So what is there to say? We can say that although they never met face to face, Jesus knew of the centurion’s faith. When Jesus showed up, he answered the centurion’s indirect prayer not because of the elders or the friends’ convincing arguments, but because of centurion’s faith that his servant could be healed. In fact, Jesus said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
In the same way we can know that when we bring our concerns to Jesus, Jesus hears more than just our words; Jesus hears our faith, he hears our hearts where those unspoken words reside.
At the same time, we can say that even though we each have direct access to God through prayer, Jesus stills hears, and even answers prayers that go to and through someone else. Sometimes we need to be able to count on prayer partners in our lives to lift prayers to God that we have a difficult time doing on our own.
I think of the time Donna went in for a routine gall bladder surgery and they found a large tumor. I found I had all I could do to listen to the doctor and understand what he was saying to me! I thank God I had a wonderful man of prayer at my side, Jim Eshleman!)
Perhaps this is a cautionary word against privatizing our faith so much that we do not communicate to others what we are facing in our personal lives. We all know people who seem to request prayer for every little hang nail but my guess would be that most of you here would be just the opposite. It takes quite a bit for you to share prayer requests with others.
This story of Jesus and the centurion seems to say that sharing prayer concerns is not a matter of weakness, rather, just the opposite it is a matter of firm faith in the one to whom all prayers are directed! It is okay and appropriate to filter our prayers requests through trusted friends and church leaders.
That pastor may have been right: perhaps only a very few truly have the gift of prayer. But this does not mean that we should stop communicating with God. As we can see from this story, while we may think we do not have the gift of prayer, we believe in a God who does have the gift of listening!
Jesus listens to those who speak, and Jesus even hears those who don’t. Even when our prayer requests are mediated, God’s response is uninterrupted.
I know for sure there are many people who can pray better than I can and the truth of it is, no one can pray your prayer better than you can!
So I give thanks that we worship a God who hears our prayers even and especially when for whatever reason, we are unable to find the words to pray them!