Meg Peery McLaughlin
Lord, Teach Us To Pray
March 12, 2023
Someone said to me this week,
I don’t mean to be rude, preach,
but when I pray, I don’t hear God talking back to me.
A different UPC saint sent me an email
is it possible that I am feeling peace
descend on me at the exact same time as someone is praying for me?
We have a lot of questions about this.
Lord, teach us to pray.
So why Jonah?
This week, like many weeks, has been a heavy one at church.
News of death – death way too soon,
and illness; news of anxiety and addiction.
Jonah and the Whale reminds us of being children, but…
can it speak into the gravity of what is it to be
partners, parents, adult children, disciples, neighbors.
Can Jonah speak to our grown-up lives?
He was the guy who chronically ran away from God.
Jonah was the guy who got super grumpy with God
because he just knew that God would forgive the enemy Ninevites,
and Jonah would’ve rather watch them burn.
But tucked in Jonah’s sassy story you will find an unlikely thing: a prayer.
After taking a boat in the exact opposite direction of where God told him to go,
Jonah finds himself in the middle of a great storm.
Knowing that it is God telling him to turn around,
Jonah asks the sailors to throw him overboard.
This is when a big fish swallows Jonah whole.
Before the fish spits him back up on land, Jonah prays. It’s the part we often skip over.
But today let us linger here.
Friends, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church, from Jonah chapter 2:
Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, 2 saying,
“I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.
3 You cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows passed over me.
4 Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight;
how[a] shall I look again upon your holy temple?’
5 The waters closed in over me;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head
6 at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God.
7 As my life was ebbing away,
I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
8 Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.
9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”
10 Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out onto the dry land.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
One of my earliest partners in pastoral ministry was the Rev. Gene Augustine.
Decades my senior, Gene wrote notes on index cards in a green rollerball pen,
his hands were knotted with arthritis, but molded perfectly to hold a golf club.
He journeyed with countless Presbyterians
through every up and down of life and death that you can imagine.
If on a week like this one you asked Gene how he was,
how in the world he continued to stand in the flood with families
as waves crashed over and over, and he said “well, I’ve got one nostril out.”
Sometimes in life that is also we can hope for—one nostril out.
My friend Christopher calls Jonah a comeback story.
The Bible tells us at the end of chapter 1 that Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights – and right then and right there our ears and souls should tingle. Anybody here today know a story about a man lost to death for three days who rose again in resurrection’s light? Yes indeed – that is the comeback story upon which we base all our hopes and joys. A comeback is a powerful thing .
But before any comeback,
there is a whole lot of groping in the dark, is there not?
And before Jonah’s comeback, there is Jonah in limbo, there
at the bottom of the ocean in the belly of a fish.
Will Jonah double down on his anger at God for the task he has been given?
Will he let his hatred of his enemies keep him from repentance?
Will Jonah pitch another fit, continue to turn his back on God?
The question hangs in the balance–
Will he remain in that tomb or is the comeback possible?
You know the answer. This prayer is the pivot point.
Prayer is always that pivot point, it seems to me.
Because it is the thing we have when we’ve come to the end of the rope.
Jonah calls to God out of his distress,
tells God how it is:
he is as low as he can go
seaweed tangled around his head.
But his prayer ends with a profession
a declaration that’s essentially the cliff note summary for the entire book,
(and also the entire Bible).
Jonah says: Deliverance belongs to the Lord!
Jonah, the run away, nearly failure of a prophet is the one who
clearly reminds us that God saves.
We cannot fall below the arms of God,
however low we go, underneath are the everlasting arms.
It does not shock me in the least that such a strong declaration of faith
is spoken from a place that seems God-forsaken.
In my experience, when the bottom drops out,
we get real clear on our need for grace
we get real clear on how God is always pouring that grace over us,
even when we least expect or deserve it.
In a little while we will commission Stephen Ministers,
I’ll tell you more about them later,
but essentially they are the ones who sit with us when life bottoms out.
Ever since I started wearing this robe,
I’ve noticed that those who are best at sitting in the water as the waves crash
are those who have been there before.
Like Michelle ,
whose baby wasn’t alive in the crib in the morning
whose marriage ended in a public display of mess and much.
who watched cancer slowly eek the life out of the one he loved most.
They all would tell you that
those who helped most were not the ones who came with questions.
Questions pelted at people at the bottom are really about our own need for control.
Have you noticed that? How we just can’t help ourselves when we ask:
What happened? Were there signs?
Did they have a history of thus and such?
Did they make this or that choice?
What about the genetics? the parents?
Goodness we like control. We like to know. We like deliverance to belong to us, to be in the power of our own hands. We like for any comeback to be by the force of us pulling on our own bootstraps.
But Michelle and Alice, and Tom
will tell you that bootstraps don’t help,
sometimes life is simply out of our control
somethings cannot be fixed
sometimes the only thing to do is sit in the water
perhaps with a friend who will sit with us
Lord, teach us to do that. Hard as it is.
That’s what Jonah shows us.
He gives us an example of what it looks like to say:
The waters are rising, the waves crashing.
Lord, deliverance belongs to you.
Perhaps then we’ll be known as the church
that is only keeping one nostril out.
But we trust,
that into that nostril God will breathe a comeback.
Yes, into it,
God will breathe life.
Saving, abundant, everlasting life—
life for the fish
and the sea
for the enemies
and for the likes of you and me,
and rising up out of the flood.
May it be so.