Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Prayer: The People's Work

May 29, 3018 - The First Book of Common Prayer

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

I say a lot of blessings. At our family's dinner table, I usually start the blessing. When I'm by myself, I habitually pray before eating. When I am out for a meal with a parishioner and the food arrives, I like to keep talking and see how long I can keep the other person waiting, wondering whether it's ok to pick up a fork and eat before the preacher stops blabbing and offers a word of thanks. When I am at a dinner party or civic gathering or charity golf tournament, I am often asked to say the blessing. I don't mind doing it, of course. After thirty-eight years of practice, I'm pretty good at it. I will admit that it helps to know I will be saying the blessing before I have a second cocktail. But one thing that makes me uncomfortable is when I am asked to say the blessing in someone else's house at someone else's dinner table. It makes me feel like I'm endorsing a terrible theology that a clergyperson's prayers are better, more direct, or more appropriate than anyone else's. They're not.

Yes, I've heard some bad prayers, and I know you have, too. Because of my occupation, I suppose that I'm less likely to stumble over a prayer in public than some other people, and, because I am an Episcopal priest, I am less likely to stand up in a public forum and ask that "our dear, sweet, Lord Jesus would show all the people in this room who do not know you that you are the only way to heaven." I'm not always a safe bet, though. The last time I was asked to offer the invocation at the Chamber of Commerce's Healthcare Breakfast, I asked that God would open the eyes and hearts and minds of the leaders in the room to see that healthcare is a basic human right and not a privilege of the rich. (I haven't been asked back.) But, except for a certain level of comfort speaking and praying in public, there's no reason to ask a clergyperson to pray. Your prayers are just as good as mine.

Prayer is the people's work. It has always been the people's work. For two millennia, faithful Christians have said their prayers without needing an ordained person to guide them. For much longer than that, faithful Jews have marked each day with their own private prayers and have celebrated the coming of Shabbat not in the synagogue but at the family dinner table. More than just a blessing said over a meal, these prayers are the backbone of a religion--a lived relationship with the divine. There is no need for an initiator, an interpreter, a mediator, or a surrogate. Prayer in its daily and weekly forms is everyone's business.

So why bother with clergy? I'm glad you asked. In Acts 2:38-42, we read that, after an impassioned plea by Peter, 3,000 people were baptized and added to the fellowship of the early Christians. And how did they live out this identity as followers of Jesus: "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." The CEV clears that up even more: "They spent their time learning from the apostles, and they were like family to each other. They also broke bread and prayed together." The apostles had a teaching role, but the fellowship, the bread-breaking, and the prayers were the work of the whole community. In other words, they didn't gather together for apostle-led services of prayer and bread blessing, breaking, and distributing. They did that at each other's tables, in each other's homes.

The inclusion of the people at the center of our religious life is one of the principles of Anglican prayer and worship. On the Day of Pentecost, June 9, 1549, the first Book of Common Prayer came into use. It was largely the work of Thomas Cranmer, who had brought together the Latin texts from the Sarum use, Greek liturgical texts, Reformation-inspired vernacular liturgies, and the English Litany and Psalter. When we think of the prayer book and Cranmer's influence on it, we often think first of its beauty. There is a reason other denominations and non-denominational churches imitate our prayer book. It is an immense contribution to the English language and to prayer. But its first gift, its primary contribution to religion, is its vision for "common prayer." Although plenty of Episcopal clergy would say otherwise, one does not need a shelf full of liturgical resources and a college degree to interpret them in order to lead worship. It's all right there. Cranmer not only put the prayers of the people into the language of the people but also put them on the lips of the people. Over the centuries, worship and prayer had become the work of the clergy, and the implication of their spiritually elite status naturally followed that practice. Cranmer reversed that, but we are in danger of losing sight of his work.

As we commemorate the first Book of Common Prayer, we must remember that prayer--even public prayer--is the people's work. Everything you need to know about how our church worships is found right there in that little red book in the pew rack in front of you. Yes, there are countless other liturgical resources and guides that clergy love to turn to in order to spice things up. Yes, conversations about prayer book revision make it more and more likely that a true common volume of common prayer will disappear. (Look at the Church of England's Common Worship, for example.) No matter what form our prayer book takes, we must remember that the prayers of our church belong to all of us. Otherwise, we're just paying a man or woman in fancy clothes to stand up in front of us and say the prayers on our behalf. And what kind of relationship with God does that give us?

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