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Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23, Year A

Gathered in Prayer

Readings: Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Jesus said to the disciples, “When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” When I visited South Africa as part of the Decade Festival in 1998, I saw that lived out.

I stayed in the homes of some wonderful women of faith. What struck me most was that no matter where I went the first thing they asked me to do was to pray with the family. We stood in a prayer circle there in those simple homes and offered up our prayers of thanksgiving for new friendships and prayers of blessing on all who lived in that home. Their lives revolved around prayer.

On my last day there, I stayed with a widow, her widowed daughter and two children. In the morning the woman went in to awaken her daughter to get ready for work. She found her incoherent, her mouth drooping, unable to move. She summoned me along with several of her neighbours to pray while she went to phone for an ambulance. That whole day while they awaited the outcome those neighbours stayed in the home and prayed. Our prayers turned to prayers of thanksgiving when the doctors reported that she had a mild stroke and would recover quickly.

A theology student doing a placement in Jamaica described a similar thing. He was awakened one night by someone who was obviously disturbed. She had a terrible nightmare. She knocked on the rectory door for help. He couldn’t think what to do for her. “What do you need?” he asked her.

“I don’t need anything!” was her reply. “I only came to pray with you for a moment. I am alone at home.” He prayed with her and her anxiety cleared. She left calmed by the prayer.

My experience in Africa taught me not to be shy about praying for people. I got into the habit of offering prayer, not only on a visit to a home, but also over the phone if I felt it was needed. One woman in my last parish was going through a crisis at work. She would sometimes phone and ask for prayer.

Simone Weil, the French mystic wrote, “Two and three, and there should be no more.” She was not excluding praying in a larger group, but she knew that prayer amongst two or three has a very special power. Anyone who has ever prayed at the bedside of someone who is ill or on a special occasion knows the power of that kind of prayer. It shows us how good the Lord is, and how present to us.

Each Sunday we pray for people for whom prayer has been requested. We may not recognize the name. We may not know the need. But God knows. And so we lift them up to God. It is a collective prayer spoken by one, but prayed by all.

Yet it often seems that prayer is simply a last resort. At times of disaster churches fill up with people. People turn to God for answers. They find themselves trusting in God. They trust that God helps and protects us.

In this congregation as in many throughout the Anglican Communion, we offer anointing and the laying on of hands. We do so in recognition of the power of prayer at work in our lives. It is a very personal kind of prayer as we ask for healing for ourselves. During the Eucharist today anointing will be offered. You are invited to come, not to be anointed for someone else. That would be like receiving communion and instead of eating it, giving it to a friend. It is meant to be a spiritual blessing to the one being anointed. If you come for anointing you come with something that needs healing and restoration in your own life, whether it is a physical, psychological or spiritual need. As I ponder the readings today I realize that if we put Jesus’ words into context we need to be willing to work through strained and troubled relationships. The prayer of the Church includes prayer for reconciliation.

An elderly man was dying. For years he had been at odds with his best friend. Wanting to straighten things out, he sent word for the man to come and see him. When his friend arrived, he told him that he was afraid to go into eternity with such a bad feelings between them. He apologized for the things he had said and done. He offered forgiveness to his friend for the hurts that had been done to him. Everything seemed fine until his friend went to leave the room. He called out to him, “But, remember, if I get better, this doesn’t count!”

It points out in a humorous way just how difficult the process of forgiveness is for most of us. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” we say in the Lord’s Prayer. It is a reminder that we are called to be forgiving people, to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. As Paul points out to the Romans, “Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

But that brings up so many questions, doesn’t it? Who is my neighbour? How is “love to do no wrong”? What is the “right” that love must do? How do we live in harmony with God’s creation? Taken to its logical conclusion, it touches every level of our lives.

The readings provide us with some Godly perspectives on the meaning of love and compassion at times of conflict and trouble. What is our Christian call when things go wrong? What do you do when things go wrong in the church? In the gospel we find some fascinating insights into communal relationships. Confrontation is something few people enjoy. Most of us will do anything to avoid it. And yet if the community, any community, is to work together, disputes require reconciliation within a context of deep and heartfelt prayer.

And so in Matthew’s gospel we are given a process for dealing with conflict and finding it in our hearts to forgive. It is a process that recognizes the struggle of the early church to work harmoniously. It was followed to help resolve difficult issues. “If someone sins against you,” Jesus says, “go and point out the fault to that person in private.” It is important to give a person an opportunity to make things right. That is what reconciliation is about. We all know that it does not work to harbour a grievance. It will simply fester and grow out of proportion. Jesus does not stop there. He knows that people do not always take kindly to criticism. The dispute may have to be aired publicly. “If the member refuses to listen, take it to the church.” ‘Take it to the two or three gathered together in prayer,’ Jesus is saying. He knows that we struggle together as the people of God. We are all struggling for the same result, a relationship between earth and heaven, between us and God and each other.

The passing of the peace in our liturgy symbolizes our willingness to be reconciled to one another. As we reach out a hand in friendship the barriers simply come down. We are ready to come to the table, eat and drink, and go out reconciled to be bread for a hungry world.

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