One of the questions I get a lot as a priest is, “how does one pray?” I am grateful to the dean of the Cathedral in San Diego, who taught a class when I was a new Episcopalian. In that class, we talked about prayer. That was the first place where I remember hearing that prayer was “talking to God”. I have been forever grateful for that bit of insight and have passed it along to others. Today I will pass it on to you.

No doubt you have heard that before; there are rarely original ideas when it comes to sermons or to prayer. What I will add to that little bit of advice, is that there are lots and lots of things that count as prayer, even when we don’t think we CAN pray. And, for what it’s worth, I think most people pray even when they may not think they are praying.

Prayer also takes many forms, as our reading from the Letter to James tells us. Those we are suffering should pray; those who are cheerful should sing songs of praise; the sick should have the elders come and pray… Even in our gospel, Jesus tells the disciples not to worry about those who are healing using his name. It is still valid, it is still prayer, and it will bring those people closer to Jesus and the Father, even if they haven’t gotten it “quite right” whatever that means.

There is always a need for prayer. We need our relationship with Jesus as individuals and as a community. That’s why I always say our primary purpose for gathering is to worship, which is of course to pray. As we look around our world today, we see all sorts of people and situations that remind us that things aren’t going well for many, many people. Death and the continuing isolation from Covid are only the tip of the iceberg. People are sad, frightened, angry… all sorts of emotions are high, and many of us aren’t handling it too well.

Today’s lesson reminds all of us that we are a community; while we have individual responsibilities to our families and those we come in contact with, we also have responsibilities as a community brought together in Jesus’ name. When we say to someone that we will pray for them, or put them on our prayer list, that is not something that we do lightly or just because it sounds nice. There have been lots of people who have criticized people who say “I will pray for you”, but I think it’s because they don’t understand what prayer is.

Prayer is not a magic trick, where we ask for something and it magically appears. Perhaps that is why people get discouraged, because they think God isn’t listening. I get that. I have prayed that way, and I will likely pray that way again. The desire for good for those we love forces us out of ourselves to ask God for good on their behalf. Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, because we are talking to God; we are bringing our deepest longings before God. God knows anyway; but the very act of reaching inside and putting those requests out there forces us to realign our priorities, and it helps us to open up the communication that needs to exist between us and God. Even in the disappointment and anger of what we might see as an unanswered prayer, God is in that conversation and despair with us. I always say to people, shake your fist; tell God how angry you are; that too is prayer. If we look at the psalms, and even in our first lesson today, there is plenty of anger and disappointment directed at God by faithful people.

We have been reading the letter from James for several weeks. One of the hallmarks of this letter is the call to action; for James, faith isn’t real if it isn’t tied to action. It is James who teaches us to be “doers of the word”. Prayer is action. It is action that is tied to our faith; why would we pray if we didn’t have some foundation of faith? There is something that happens to us as we pray for others; our own hearts and minds are opened to God’s presence as well as opened to the concerns of another. It changes us; it changes our relationship with God. I would also maintain that prayer is a responsibility that we have as a community, AND I would hope that our prayers help us to consider the possibility of other actions. Prayer and worship help us to love God, and if we are paying attention, they also help us to love our neighbor. Faith, prayer, and love are not passive, but for disciples, they are incredibly active. It means we are doing something for another, we are doing something that helps us to grow closer to God; the “problem” is that sometimes God tells us the things we don’t want to hear or do. Prayer is comforting AND risky, because we aren’t the only ones doing the talking.

Pray, beloved. Pray for yourselves, for others, and most of all, to get to know God through your prayers. Don’t just pray the polite ones, either. Pray the angry ones; pray the ones where the language might embarrass even a sailor. God knows the desires and disappointments of your heart; so pray, and let God in. You never know what you might learn, and you just might be asked to do more. At the very least, you will know that you are not alone, even in the darkness. And that, is definitely worth something.