Imagine if you could hear the prayers of people in your congregation.
Of course, sometimes you can, assuming the person offering them is part of a committee or a small group, and they’re just doing the requisite task of opening or closing a meeting while the preacher listens in.
But I’m talking here about personal, private prayers—someone’s most confidential and revealing interactions with God. Oh, to have access to the kinds of prayers that reveal people’s truest desires, their deepest fears, and their worst assumptions about themselves!
If this is starting to sound creepy to you, that’s because it is. What could be more intimate than prayer, and therefore what could be more intrusive than listening in on someone else as they bare their soul before God?
Preachers know that prayers are always there, though. Even as you speak out from the pulpit, prayers are in the room, hidden from you. Behind the polite smiles, the sleepy eyes, the vacant stares, the confused shuffling in the pews, and the stern looks, people’s prayers are repeating, even if unconsciously. Some people are stuck. Some are losing hope. Some, you’re certain, are operating with wildly inaccurate or even dangerous understandings of who God is.
This has to be one of the more difficult aspects of preaching: wondering about your congregation and asking, “What are all of you thinking? What did you come here to experience this morning? What scares you about the week to come? How can I help you experience the liberating power of the good news?” If only all of them would just tell you. (If only they knew themselves.) Wouldn’t your sermon be so much more effective if you didn’t have to guess?
Preaching, even to congregations we know well, so often feels like fumbling around a dark, unfamiliar room while trying to find a light switch with our hands. Also, we’re barefoot, and there are hundreds of LEGO bricks scattered on the floor. It makes us nervous. It’s not easy.
Preaching—from writing the sermon, to delivering it, to talking about it with people afterward—would be so much easier if only we could eavesdrop on everyone’s prayers.
But easier doesn’t add up to better, or to more effective.
One lesson of the Parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14 comes from its insinuation that religious folks like ourselves may have a tendency to get it all wrong. Even if we could hear the private prayers of our congregation, we will misunderstand the bigger picture. To be more precise: we may misunderstand how God hears those prayers and how God regards the individuals who are praying them.
The Pharisee in the parable isn’t wrong to be grateful that he isn’t a tax collector. He knew that that professional choice was available to him, if he wanted to take it. But he didn’t. Soaking the Galilean population as a Roman stooge might have given him an easier path toward a more comfortable life. But his faith, his privilege, or his values took him in a different direction. Thank God.
There’s no arrogance in his belief that he chose or inherited a better way. Where he falls short in the parable is in his unspoken assumption that the tax collector resides beyond the limits of divine mercy. Whether he actually hears the tax collector’s prayer or not, he wrongly assesses the tax collector and his dignity. What’s even more tragic: he misunderstands God.
If I heard your prayers, I’d misread your motives. Worse, I’d want to play God by deciding which prayers are worth considering. Like the Pharisee in the parable, I’d assume that your prayer for mercy (like the tax collector’s) wasn’t sincere enough to get God’s attention. Or, like many misled readers of the parable, I’d assume that your prayer of thanksgiving (like the Pharisee’s) wasn’t a real prayer but a self-gratifying expression of you own high regard for yourself.
Working Preachers, be careful about what you assume. Don’t make narrow the wideness in God’s mercy. We don’t know what God hears when God listens to the prayers of the world.
We do know this, however: that no one resides beyond the reach of God’s compassion and God’s desire to reconcile. We also know that the prayer God, be merciful to me, a sinner! is a perfectly good place for anyone to begin. Not only do we know those things; we also know that they will preach. They may not always touch the specific nerve of your congregation’s particular hopes and fears as precisely as you might wish on a given Sunday, but maybe that’s not your job to figure out.
God will be the one who makes a sermon hit its target. God will be the one who answers prayer. Sure, God may use you and your this-is-the-best-I-can-do-this-week sermon as part of the answer to someone else’s prayer, but God might find other ways, too.
And so begin there, and stay there—with God. Don’t use your sermon to instruct people how to pray the “right” way. Don’t use it shake people back and forth until their motives line up with what you think they should be. Use your sermon to introduce people to a compassionate God. You know the One I mean: the God who answers prayers like “Be merciful to me, a sinner!”
God likes to answer that one, whether it’s prayed by a tax collector or by an anxious preacher.