Praying Well, Loving Much – Br. James Koester

Br. James Koester

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12, Year C)
Genesis 18: 20 – 32
Psalm 138
Colossians 2: 6 – 15
Luke 11: 1 – 13

One of the most amazing places in the world, at least as far as I am concerned, is the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem. I know that I have preached about it before, and I am sure that I will do so again, and again, and again.

On one of my visits to Jerusalem, I was there with a small group of people who were participating in a course at St. George’s College. We got into a conversation with one of the Armenian seminarians who was staffing the Armenian gift shop. Our friend Charlene, who claims that she doesn’t speak Armenian very well, got into a conversation, in Armenian, with the young man. The next thing we knew we were taken down, down, down into the depths of the rock quarry that the Church of the Resurrection is built on. As we descended from street level, we passed any number of pilgrims and tourists. We passed two Armenian chapels in the lower level of the Church. At the side of one chapel, near the altar was an iron grille. Having been ushered through the altar rail, our host pulled out a large key and unlocked the grille. We went through the grille single file, and he pulled it shut, locking it behind him. We followed him along a long, narrow wooden walkway and down, down, down more stairs. We finally arrived at the bottom and saw what we were looking for: a bit of graffiti dating from sometime in the very early part of the fourth century, before the church above us had been built. Long before the Church of the Resurrection had been built in the years after AD 335, when it was still illegal to be Christian, pilgrims had been making their way to the place associated with the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord. One of them had drawn on the rock face a small sailing boat and below it had written the words Lord, we have come. It was stunning to be in a place of prayer and pilgrimage that predated the building of the great church. But what took my breath away was what we were shown next. As we made our way out, we stopped at another flight of stairs and headed down, down, down. We were in a great crevice in the rock. When we reached the bottom our guide announced that this was the place where Jesus and his disciples had come and prayed after the Last Supper and before they went to the Garden of Gethsemane. I asked our guide if we too could pray and so the four of us said the Lord’s Prayer together. It was a spine tingling moment that I will never forget.Now I have no idea if what our guide said is true. It would be impossible to say with any degree of certainty whether or not Jesus had been there on that night, or indeed ever. There is certainly no record of this happening in the gospels. What I do know was that while we prayed, the sense of God’s presence was palpable. I knew that God was listening to our prayer.

For many, prayer is one of the great puzzles of life. It is thought by some to be largely hocus pocus and because nothing happens, or at least nothing magically happens, it is deemed useless and quickly abandoned. And because nothing happens, it is clear that there is no one ‘there’, and any previous understanding or experience of God on their part is quickly abandoned. Because prayer doesn’t ‘work’ and because there is no one ‘there’, the great enterprise of faith is rejected.

But for us as Christians, prayer is not about the magic of saying certain words so that some desired outcome happens. Rather prayer is about mystery. It is about the mystery of love. We prayer, not because we want something, but because we love someone. It is, as Father Benson reminds us, the occasion when the soul really enters into union with God.[1] Thus we ought, then, to approach with a real hope that God will reveal Himself to us; not merely that He will enable us to acquire some view of this or that truth that we have prepared, but that He will reveal himself to us.[2] In that moment, deep under the Church of the Resurrection, in the heart of the earth, God mysteriously revealed himself to me. I spoke, as did Moses with God in the Tent of Meeting, face to face, as one speaks to a friend.[3]

When this speaking with God face to face as one would speak with a friend becomes true for us, prayer ceases to be magic and the conception of prayer as homage paid to a distant God falls away. We shall find ourselves full of awe and gratitude that the life of divine love is open and accessible to us, for God dwells in us. ”Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them, and make our home in them.”[4]

It is this that we witness today in both Luke and Genesis. We are witnesses of love. Where there is no love, prayer is empty magic. As Paul reminds us in the First Letter to the Corinthians: If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.[5]

What is clear throughout the gospels, and what is clear in the story of Abraham, is that both Jesus and Abraham were great lovers of God. Both put their whole trust and confidence in God. Both had come to know God as a friend and as a son. And so both dared to speak to God face to face, as one speaks to a friend.

Jesus calls God ‘father’, ‘abba’, ‘dad’. Abraham argues with God: suppose, suppose, suppose. This is not the language of strangers but of those who know and have come to love, one another. And because they know and love the One to whom they speak they are filled with boldness.

Both Jesus and Abraham are incredibly bold in their prayers. Jesus asks God to give, forgive, save, and deliver. Abraham has the audacity to bargain with God: suppose 50, suppose 45, suppose 40, suppose 30, suppose 20, suppose 10. One biblical scholar describes them both as shameless.[6] They are shameless not just in their requests, but their demands. They shamelessly and boldly demand: give, forgive, save, deliver, suppose, suppose, suppose, suppose.

I sometimes wonder if our prayers are too timid, too polite? Are we still too afraid of God? Is God still a threatening force to hide from and not embrace? There is no fear of God in either Jesus or Abraham. Instead, they are shameless in what they ask, and confident that their requests will be heard, not by some distant deity in the sky, but by a loving father and a compassionate friend.

We gather here today, as we do every Sunday, and indeed as we gather every day, not to speak some mumbo jumbo or hocus pocus, expecting some magical response to our mumbled incantations, but to hear a loving answer to our shameless requests: give, forgive, save, deliver, suppose, suppose, suppose, suppose.

At the heart of real prayer, whether it be uttered by Jesus, or Abraham or you or me, whether it be uttered deep in a crevice under the Church of the Resurrection, or in the privacy of your room, or publically here in this chapel, prayer is a relationship of love: our love for God and God’s love for us. It is love which makes prayer real and not magic. It is love which makes prayer effective and not empty. It is love which make it possible for prayer to move mountains. To paraphrase Father Benson, we have prayed well, if in our prayer we have loved much.[7]

In a few moments we will gather up all of our prayers in the Prayers of the People. Make them today a real offering of love. Pour out your love to the Father, in the name of Jesus the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Pour out your love of God to God. Pour out your love for the world and its people, which God made and also loves. Pour out your love for those whom you love, to the One who is Love, for God is love[8] and surely God loves those whom you love so dearly. Pour out your love and know God’s love in return.

Jesus and Abraham were great lovers of God and their love of God gave them the boldness to pray shamelessly: give, forgive, save, deliver, suppose, suppose, suppose, suppose. May we too be granted such love for the Father that our prayers may be shameless and bold signs that we too have prayed well because we have loved much.

[1] Benson, Richard Meux, The Religious Vocation, Of Mental Prayer, page 190

[2] Ibid, page 191

[3] Exodus 33:11

[4] SSJE, Rule of Life, The Mystery of Prayer, chapter 21, page 42

[5] 1 Corinthians 13:1

[6]Pilch, John J., The Cultural World of Jesus, Collegeville MN, The Liturgical Press, page 116-17

[7] Benson, Richard Meux, Instructions on the Religious Life, Second Series, 1935, page 3

[8] 1 John 4: 16

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  1. Thomas DeFreitas on August 10, 2023 at 06:59

    Many thanks for these insights, Br. James. I think you’ve hit upon what I love about the Psalms. It’s all there, there’s this all-or-nothing go-for-broke immediate intimacy with God.

    Also, I cherish Fr Benson’s words that prayer is not “homage paid to a distant god” but that “divine love is open and accessible to us, because God dwells in us.” God’s love sustains us “from on high,” but also (crucial to recall!) from within. Thank you again. Peace and light.

  2. Bobbi on August 29, 2022 at 12:32

    Br. James, you make it clear in your sermons and announcements as Superior that prayer is one of the most important tenants of your faith; you pray for us and ask us to pray for you. I’m sure I am not alone in praying for you during your sabbatical as you travel in England and as you walk the Wales Coast Path.

  3. Richard Cawley on August 4, 2021 at 10:34

    My son no longer loves me but I love him and pray for him each day thanks to you brother and the teaching on prayer that is so much part of the ministry of the order. Thank you all.

  4. Elizabeth Anne on August 1, 2020 at 18:51

    Brother James, Thank you for taking me on this journey of love and prayer as i am living through the fourth month of sheltering in place due to Covid 19 with my little dog Issy a companion and gift in my life. Coming to terms with the reality of another year in isolation and sharing your prayers and sermons with family I cannot visit.

  5. David Cranmer on July 30, 2020 at 20:35

    Brother James, your comment that we pray because we love really hit home. I know that I recently printed out a homily on praying the name of Jesus. That homily also focused on love. Love is something that I struggled with before I came to Christ and for many years afterwards. I so appreciate this message. Thank you.

  6. Phyllis Malzyk Giordano on July 30, 2020 at 12:36

    Thank you Brother James for a well written, powerful explanation about how our love for God, through prayer, transcends all languages and all boundaries.

  7. Tracey OShaughnessy on July 30, 2020 at 12:29

    That is the truth. I pray today for a good CT scan result for my son, who had melanoma last January. I pray out of a glut of live that I sent streaming jets of faith and hope to God.

  8. Margo on July 30, 2020 at 10:10

    Dear Br. James,
    You are at your very best, linking the ordinary to the sacred, the immediate to forever. I love this sermon and it will be passed on to several people.
    Thank you.

  9. Ann on July 30, 2020 at 09:51

    Thank you, Br. James! Your sermon is as meaningful, or more, in 2020 as it was in 2016. Prayer as love, prayer with love, prayer is love…this message is timeless.

  10. Jeanne DeFazio on July 30, 2020 at 09:42

    Awesome. God bless you so much!

    These devotionals are inspirational. I just quoted one of them in my latest book. I will send a copy to the monastery.
    God bless you all so much!

  11. Louise Clarke on July 28, 2016 at 22:59

    Thank you so much Brother James. Prayer is love, not magic. A Divine mystery. Dwelling within us. I don’t always have that wonderful “feeling” of God’s loving presence within me but I can always revisit the times when God did feel very near and savor those love messages and ponder them in my heart.

  12. Christine on July 27, 2016 at 10:07

    Thank you, Brother James, for this beautiful sermon. I’ve been struggling with my prayer practice and your sermon gives me much to consider…and also peace.

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