Leon was the kind of guy who had never been interested in religions. As a reasonable man, he considered faith to be irrational and damaging. Yet, one day a friend of Leon’s was walking past a small church in the heart of the city and happened to look in. To his amazement, he saw Leon kneeling before some candles and mumbling a prayer. Leon had recently fallen upon hard times, so his friend guessed that this must be the reason for his newfound religiosity. But something seemed amiss, so he entered the church and approached Leon. The sanctuary was dark and almost empty. Sure enough, there was Leon, crouched on the floor, reciting a religious incantation at the foot of the altar. Upon getting closer, his friend realized that Leon was reciting an old folk prayer that was believed by many to bring wealth and health to those who would recite it daily. His friend was amazed and interrupted Leon, saying, “I thought you didn’t believe in such superstitious nonsense. Do you really think that this prayer works?” In reply, Leon looked up and angrily proclaimed, “Of course I don’t believe it works, what kind of idiot do you take me for?” “Then why are you reciting it?” said his friend, in shock. “Ah,” replied Leon, “it is because the priest informed me that this prayer works even if you don’t believe in it.” (Parable by Peter Rollins).
Peter Rollins wrote that parable. I tell it because a lot of people feel like Leon. Doesn’t it sometimes feel like the silliest thing in the world? We pray even if we don’t think it’s worth a lick, but some guy or gal up here says it’s worth a shot. It’s like taking vitamins. I mean, I guess they do something, but I’m not sure what. Prayer is a difficult practice—so challenging, in fact, that I’ve read books on prayer, I’ve used prayer beads and rosaries, chanted prayer, tried meditative prayer. I’ve set reminders on my phone. None of this has made it easier. And still, I persist, even though it’s hard, because God tells me that God’s present even when I don’t feel it. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
It’s interesting that our country, as a whole, is still a praying country, even as we grow increasingly secular. The number of Christians have dropped fairly significantly and the number of “nones” have risen. But the latest pew survey (2014) says that more than half (55%) of Americans say they pray every day, while 21% say they pray weekly or monthly. Get this: even 20% of the religiously unaffiliated pray. Can’t hurt to try. So 71% of us in this country are praying semi-regularly. And I think that’s because we’re desperate for some connection to something larger than ourselves. There’s a lot of beautiful things and we need someone to tell thanks. There’s a lot of painful things and we want God to make it right. We pray.
One of the reasons why we gather together is simply prayer. And so we take stock of our overflowing buckets of thanksgiving, joy, grief, and pain. We empty it into each other’s hands and then give it all to God. I’m asked to pray about folks who are special to you, sometimes it’s written on a card, other times when you’re passing through the line to shake my hand. And all of these concerns, no matter how minuscule, deserve our attention. There’s Aunt Kerry who was just diagnosed with cancer. North Korea points their missiles at Hawaii (or wherever). Your daughter’s goldfish passed away. A tragic accident in the neighborhood. And that’s not to mention those concerns that are too painful to share vocally. When I hear the pain some of you feel, there are no words. All I can say is, ‘hurry up God.’
We care about the particularities of each other’s lives. If we didn’t, then we wouldn’t be here. We can, like, watch a sermon on t.v. or stream one through the internet. You can find any song in the history of the world on Spotify, except Taylor Swift’s catalogue. But we come here to learn how to love God and each other. There is no such thing as a private faith. We don’t only pray in isolation; it’s something we do together to unite our hearts with God’s. This is how we become the body of Christ. And when one part of the body is hurting, the rest of us need to know. The ole timey hymn ‘Sweet Hour of Prayer’ is beautiful, but it’s got a theological problem in the first line. This sweet hour of prayer doesn’t call us from a world of care, it calls us into a world of care. Mother Teresa used to say, “Let my heart be broken by the things that breaks yours.” That’s the work of the Church. And we give our brokenness to the one who was broken so that all could be made whole.
We sound a lot like the community that James writes about. When you get a group of people together, there will be problems. Sin and sickness. There will be gossip and pride. There will be dead-end jobs and unhealthy workplaces. There will be disease. What do we do, then? James asks us, “Any among you suffering? Pray. Are any cheerful? Sing and praise. Any stuck in sin? Confess it to each other and then walk in a different way. Any sick? Anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.” We do this because “The prayer of faithful will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” The Lord will raise them up. The Greek word is egeiró, which is the same word for resurrection. The prayer of the faithful will bring resurrection. It’s not about getting your three wishes granted, but about raising the dead and the creation of something new. If we take that seriously, then prayer has unbelievable resurrection power.
Richard Foster says, “If we truly love people, we will desire for them far more than it is within our power to give them, and this will lead us to prayer. Intercession is a way of loving others…Marriages are being shattered. Children are being destroyed. Individuals are living lives of quiet desperation without purpose or future. And we can make a difference if we can learn to pray on their behalf. This is not optional, it is sacred obligation and a precious privilege for those who take up the yoke of Christ.”
Let’s think about the Gospel lesson. I read this great story about four men who carry their paralyzed friend to Jesus. The house is crowded, so they climb up to the roof and start digging, right, because the roofs are made of mud. This has got me thinking that I need to find some friends like this. They eventually get through the roof and lower the man to Jesus. Jesus sees the faith of the men and forgives sins, he heals the paralytic. The man picks up his mat and walks home.
If we look at Mark’s story, we’ll see that this man is healed because of those four stretcher-bearers. God works through stretcher-bearers, the ones who carry others to his feet. It’s interesting—Jesus credits the friends’ faith, their faithfulness, for the healing of the crippled man. It’s not because the paralytic has faith. It’s because his friends have faith. This should make us a little nervous, right? We’d rather think of ourselves as self-sufficient. And we’ve made Christianity into a solo sport. So often we hear about the need to have faith for ourselves. Do you believe? Do you have faith that brings healing, salvation, and everlasting life? Could it be possible that someone else’s faith can make you whole or bring you salvation? Mark tells us so. It feels a lot like intercessory prayer—digging through the roof and laying someone else at the feet of Jesus. We do that when we pray.
Some time ago I heard a modern version of this story. A theologian, Dwight Peterson, was placed in hospice care in 2012 and was supposed to die within the year. When Dwight first got the news of his impending death, he lost his faith. Couldn’t read Scripture. Couldn’t pray. And a friend came and visited and stayed with him for a weekend. And Dwight would say to him, “I just can’t find my faith.” Dwight’s friend turned to him and said, “that’s ok—we have it for you.” We have it for you. That’s intercession. Dwight Peterson died in 2016; he lived years longer than expected. At the time he attributed it to the doctors, the medications, and the prayers. His body was never healed, but his soul was saved because of the stretcher-bearers who lowered him into Jesus’ presence. His broken heart was mended.
If we’re following Jesus, then we’re also trying to help other people find freedom from the things that oppress them. Today, we can become stretcher-bearers through prayer. People need the help we can give them—to carry them to Jesus’s feet. The story makes perfect sense—you don’t have to do it yourself. All of us need stretcher-bearers. We should be asking ourselves, “Who would pick you up, tear off the roof, and lower you to Jesus? Who are the friends, whose faith is strong even when ours is weak? We all need them, but many of us don’t have them. There’s also the other side of the coin. Are you a stretcher-bearer for someone else? Who is it? Who would call you at 2 am when you she has nowhere else to turn? This world is difficult. There will be times when your hopes are dashed, when the disease is too fatal. There will be times when you can’t pray for yourself and then you’ll realize that you don’t have to. You have us. And we’ll carry you to Jesus’ feet. Amen