Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“O God, Turn Me into a Unicorn”
Romans 8: 26-30
At the Inauguration of Fifty Years of Bach Vespers
at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
October 22, 2017 (20th Sunday after Pentecost)
Are there occasions when you find it almost impossible to pray? Do you sometimes question the validity of your prayers? Or have you simply given up on praying altogether?
The poet Christian Wiman writes of looking up at night and seeing his little child Eliza standing in the doorway.
“‘Daddy,’ she said, ‘I can’t sleep. Every time I close my eyes, I’m seeing terrible things.’
“I suggested she pray to God,” writes Wiman. “This was either a moment of tremendous grace or brazen hypocrisy (not that the two can’t coincide) since I am not a great pray-er myself…Nevertheless, I suggested that my little girl get down on her knees and bow her head and ask God to give her good thoughts—about the old family house in Tennessee that we’d gone to just a couple of weeks earlier, for example, and the huge green yard with its warlock willows and mystery thickets, the river with its Pleistocene snapping turtles and water-bearded cattle, the buckets of just-picked blueberries and the fried Krispy Kremes and the fireflies smearing their strange radiance through the humid Tennessee twilight. I told her to hold that image in her head and ask God to preserve it for her.
“‘Oh, I don’t think so, Daddy.’ She looked me right in the eyes.
“‘What do you mean, Eliza? Why not?’
“‘Because in Tennessee I asked God to turn me into a unicorn and’—she spread her arms wide in a disconcertingly adult and ironic shrug—‘look how that’s worked out.’”
Oh, the disappointments! You have likely besought God, at one time or another, to turn you into a unicorn of sorts and when you haven’t sprouted that singular, delightful horn, you have uttered in resignation, “I have no idea how to pray….in fact, I am not sure I believe in the efficacy of prayer at all.”
When I was installed as Holy Trinity’s pastor last November, I promised before you here at Vespers that I would “pray for God’s people.” I hate to admit that I have found it challenging to keep that promise. It is not that I don’t want to pray; I desperately do. I long for my prayers to be as inevitable as walking our dog Cisco in the morning, checking how many “likes” I have on Facebook, and reading the Yankee’s box score. But, sadly, my prayers do not often work out like that.
I so want to pray well as I imagine do many of you. I am always in search of the perfect prayer book, you know the one with beautifully gilded pages, the lovely delicate ribbons, and the first letter of each chapter gorgeously drawn—this book will certainly be the magical elixir that rouses my drowsy prayer life….You know how that goes!
I have experimented with prayer styles over the years, too, often resorting to the simple Jesus Prayer of the Eastern Orthodox Church, repeating the simple phrase, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” over and over again. They say if you repeat this often enough—maybe 10,000 times in a day—your prayer will become part of your heart. (This prayer, by the way, was made famous in JD Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey,” picking up on the Russian spiritual classic, “The Way of the Pilgrim”—do read that delightful book.) Perhaps you experiment with prayer styles—Zen, Yoga, Centering Prayer, morning walks in Central Park—all in hopes of becoming a unicorn, healthier, happier, more tranquil and certainly more loving. And yet how often do you throw up your hands like little Eliza and cry out, “Look how that has turned out”?
The fourth century desert father Saint Anthony of Egypt, once said, “A true prayer is one that you do not understand.”
When our prayers feel so feeble, nonexistent even, maybe that is when sufficient room has been made for God to draw closer than we ever imagined and actually to pray for us. St. Paul’s says of our sometimes stumbling and bumbling prayer life, put to music in Bach’s motet we will soon hear: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
Perhaps one of those profound prayers too deep for words occurs this evening.
Tonight, we inaugurate the fiftieth year of Bach Vespers at Holy Trinity. For all those years, people like you have, at least, come for the dazzling music of Johan Sebastian Bach, often seeking tranquility in the midst of turbulent times (Vespers started in 1967 during the height of the Viet Nam War). Could it be that this gorgeous music is our most profound prayer in a way we can barely fathom—how do so many of you say it, “I just come for the music.” Could it be in the tapping of our toes, humming along with the choir, closing our weary eyes at some gorgeous turn of phrase, could it be that the Spirit is interceding for us with sighs too deep for words?
Thank you for being here tonight as we begin our 50th year celebration Bach Vespers. May God bless you with the gift of music as you offer whatever your prayer may be and, if it be God’s will, may you be turned into a unicorn.