This week presented a number of seemingly disparate themes in the life of the parish, and so a sermon was a bit more of a challenge than most weeks. On the sad front, we learned of the death of both Don Quinn and Mary Lea Lindsey. Although Don never really considered himself formally a member of this congregation, at least while I was here, he certainly had a long and deep connection thanks to Barb, who preceded him in death. And Mary Lea probably taught Bible Study classes when God was studying the Scriptures! Her ties here are like that of a tap root. And while we may already have mourned her leaving Iowa, we probably all find ourself praying especially for her beloved husband, Bob, thankful that his rehab went well enough that they could spend these last few days of her life on this earth together. On the good front, many of us will be speaking or visiting with mothers today; and if you happen to be a mother, you will likely see or hear from your children. Maybe they will treat you rather than asking for food or laundry or some other plea that often follows the words "Mom. . . " On the better front, we have formally relaunched a feeding ministry. Michelle Diericks and I have been privileged to hear from some old friends of this parish, and Robin has already had occasion to feed a single mom and her children. On the liturgical front, we are celebrating healing Sunday. The readings, in particular Acts and the passage from John’s Gospel, are about increasing the size of the Church, and yet we have committed ourselves to a period of discipleship or more inward focus. And given all that, who has the time to preach the irony of the Revelations selection and omissions today?
I found myself, however, settling quickly on a teaching about our individual prayer lives. I hope it was because prayer figures prominently in the Acts passage and because Jesus spends time today praying for His disciples, not just the disciples present with Him, but even for you and for me. It may seem a simply subject to some around here, but I wonder whether it is as simple as we think. Oh, to be sure, praying itself is quite easy. We can do it on our knees, in the car going to work, at home, in the shower, silently or aloud, singing or speaking, in desperation or in a well discerned mind, the list of acceptable prayers goes on and on. God is not as big on the formulae for praying as He is on the heart of the one praying and the focus of the prayer. And it is on these last bits that our prayer lives get difficult.
A simple question one must answer, particularly if one claims the lordship of Christ Jesus in his or her life is the existence of a prayer life. Put simply, do you have a prayer life? Are you spending time each day committed to speaking with God? I suspect that for many of us here gathered, there is a bit of desire to squirm now. Why? We know we should be in prayer. We know He will give us whatever we asks which is in accord with His will. We know that He taught us that we would even do greater things than the Son if we go to the Father in prayer. So why don’t we have stronger prayer lives?
I suspect that it is the discernment side of things which give us pause. Maybe there are too many things affecting peoples’ lives and we somehow think that God can only address one or two. Do I pray for healing? for deliverance? for purpose? for provision? for emotional problems? for loneliness? Maybe we use the excuse “I just don’t know what I should pray for, so I am going to avoid the whole idea of praying altogether.” Maybe it seems that God is not listening. We ask and ask and ask, and He seems never to hear us, so we figure praying is a waste of our time. Maybe, just maybe, we are afraid of the responsibility. What if He hears me? What if He does what I ask?
Whatever our excuse, it is clear that God wants us to be speaking and listening to Him. I should probably have that reversed, especially on Mother’s Day. How many of us ever heard the old maxim “You have two ears and one mouth so you should listen twice as much as you speak” from our mothers? And there’s the rub. How do we learn what it is we should be praying for in our lives and in the lives of those around us? Jesus, of course, gives us great insight in the Gospel lesson today. You and I, as disciples of Jesus, are somehow, mysteriously, being grafted into that relationship which exists between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Our recent readings have pointed to that time in the future when our hearts will be truly circumcised, when our minds will be united with God’s, when our wills will be utterly His. We will not have to have shadowy moments like this because He will be our teacher, He will be dwelling with us. I have even preached previously about the idea of the Holy Dance or Holy Waltz of John Damascus. Most of you who have spoken with me over the years understand the end to which we are pointed. Yet we forget far too often that we are inheritors and given glimpses of that future day even in days like today. The key is figuring out how God wants to be glorified in any given situation. And to do that, to do that consistently, we must spend some time in prayer listening and discerning what God wills in any particular situation.
And lest you think I am preach at you, I am part of the audience for this sermon as well. Raise your hands if you have ever heard me gripe about provision. Raise your hands if you have ever heard me offer suggestions to God as to how He might better handle situations. We are all in this predicament of prayer together! In a few moments, many of you will come forward seeking healing. My job is to figure out how you and your life can best glorify Christ and the Father and then pray for the Holy Spirit to act. Sometimes we get it right. I have witnessed miraculous healings in my time among you. Sometimes, I have gotten it wrong but still gotten it right. I have prayed for what I thought God wanted in your life only to see Him move in another area with power! Far too often, I get it flat out wrong. Maybe I pray for your back and He wants me praying that you have strength and patience to bear a cross. Maybe I pray for a relationship and He wants me praying for provision. I have seen His response enough to know that when we pray for that which glorifies Him in accord with His will, God acts and acts with power and compassion. Why? Because He wants the world to know He loves them just as much as He loves us. He wants the world to come to know Him, and He has chosen you and me to be those ambassadors by which He becomes known. What better way to make oneself known that by an amazing act of power in response to our prayer!
For an example of what I am speaking about this morning, look at Paul and Silas. The men find themselves in Philippi of Macedonia, and they witness a slave who is performing fortune-telling. Notice they ignore her work and her owners profit for some time. Every day she followed them prophesied that he and Silas were “slaves of the Most High God, who proclaims to the way of salvation.” Were Paul and Silas content to “live and let live?” Were they convinced they lacked power? For whatever reason, we are told they became annoyed after many days. Paul, in annoyance, simply prayed the spirit out of the slave girl. Incredibly, it came out. Notice, too, that no one wonders why the spirit left her. Paul and Silas know why, the slave girl’s owners know why, and apparently the people who watched the exchange knew why. Do you think that Paul and Silas were praying “Lord, make the demon come out so we can be arrested?”
But look what happens. They are arrested. The magistrates convict them. They are stripped of their clothes and flogged with rods. Then they are imprisoned. You and I cannot relate to this from Paul’s perspective. Paul is a Roman citizen. Unlike America where most of those whom we encounter are citizens of this country, few in the Roman Empire were truly citizens. American Express had a saying a few years ago: “membership has its privileges.” Rome had that figured out a couple thousand years ago. By law, Paul was subject only to Caesar and his courts. We speak sometimes of the idea of us binding ourselves to God but how He, in accepting us, binds Himself, His honor, to us. When we sin, we dishonor God. But when we do what He commands, we glorify Him. Similarly, though, because of our relationship with Him as Lord and disciple, when someone dishonors us, they dishonor Him. That’s part of why He claims vengeance in the end, but that is another sermon. Suffice it to say that Paul should have been subject only to judgment by Caesar and his court. Few were granted power to judge Roman citizens. Yet these magistrates do just exactly that! Now place yourself in Paul’s sandals. For what would you be praying? How mad would you be at your treatment, especially given the privileges and rights owed you under the law?
We are not told what Paul and Silas pray. We know from Paul’s other writings that he always prayed that God would be glorified in his life and in his sufferings. Paul desperately wanted the world to come to a knowledge and love of God through Christ, so we can well imagine his prayers in that cell. And as they are praying and singing and worshipping God, what happens? The earth shakes and the cell doors are opened! Talk about deliverance! Escape is at hand, right!
Paul, of course, knows what happens if they flee. If they escape, the warden will be held responsible. He will be tortured and killed, most likely, for failure to execute his job properly. So Paul keeps everyone together in the jail. Think of how stupid this must seem. They have prayed and worshipped God. The doors have opened! What other sign is needed? Yet Paul knows the consequence. The other prisoners listen to him because, well, it is clear that God listens to him. Once the jailer happens onto the scene and sees the doors open, he knows his fate. Immediately he draws his sword and prepares to kill himself. But Paul stops him by telling them they are all present. The jailer has lights brought, rushes in, and falls before Paul and Silas asking what he must do to be saved. Paul and Silas answer simply “Believe on the Lord Jesus.” We are told that Paul and Silas spoke the word of the Lord to the jailer and to all who were in the house with him. The household ministers to Paul and Silas, and then they are all baptized in the middle of the night! Then all join in the feast rejoicing at the belief of the jailer.
It is a powerful account of a working of the Holy Spirit. It is also a story which should cause us to realize the necessity of prayer to reshape us as disciples. Place yourself in the story and see where your prayers and responses might have been different from Paul’s and Silas’. There were lots of places for missteps. Did God want His disciples freed? Of course, but neither did He want the jailer to kill himself and the jailer’s family sold into slavery. Was Paul right to feel indignation at his treatment at the hands of the magistrates in Philippi? You bet! But, then again, they served a Lord who, for a time, became lower than the angels and suffered the indignity of death on a cross to save His people. So they knew that suffering could lead to God’s glory. Could they have known they had power over the spirit of fore-telling? Yes, they probably did. Then why cast the spirit out and suffer what they did? As the spirit itself testified, they were proclaimers of the way of salvation! To do God’s will and ask for His intervention correctly, both Paul and Silas had to be very much in communication with God through prayer. They had to understand, however imperfectly, His heart and His will in the matters which they faced. Prayer and the study of Scripture, are the ways that we can begin to understand Him rightly.
So, once again I ask you, how is your prayer life? Are you speaking with God on a daily basis? Or are you running to Him only in emergencies? Do you expect Him to act in what accord with His will? Or are you buying into the secular world’s teaching that faith in Him is a system that is good for you if it works for you but not representative of reality? Are you asking for eyes to see and ears to hear how your sufferings, be they financial, health, relationship, or whatever, can be used to glorify Him and draw others into your life into a right relationship with God? Or are you simply asking Him to remove the suffering, unaware that your response to suffering and your faith in Him in your suffering may be the best sermon another ever hears? Do you ever ask Him how you should pray for those in your life? Or do you believe you know best and think He ought to conform His will to your own?
Admittedly, these are hard questions to face. Then again, He always promised there would be crosses to be born. In the days, weeks, and months ahead, ask yourself and ask God about your prayer life. Is He happy with it? Are you? We do have some amazing intercessors among us, and they well may answer in the affirmative; but for many of us, the reflective and discerned answer will be no. Most of us will recognize that we could be speaking and listening to Him better and that we could be correspondingly better representatives of His love and His healing power in the world around us. The great news is that such intimate communion with God can begin at any time! Perhaps you have claimed to follow Him for decades but never worked on your prayer life at all. You can start today and have as big an impact through your prayers as even Paul and Silas, if you seek His will and ask Him to intercede so that He is glorified. Perhaps this is all new to you. Perhaps you have never considered that God wants to glorify Himself through your faithful testimony. He does, and He will.
And a note of warning. We are focusing a bit more internally as a parish for the time being. As a parish we are concentrating a bit more on discipleship rather than service. Separating the two is really impossible. Faith without works is dead, but work without faith is meaningless. We can serve and serve and serve, but if we have no account of the joy within us, no answer to the “why” question, we do no good. In fact, we are cruel in the sense that we leave others wandering in the wilderness when we know the source of the living water. But once an individual or a community begins to discern God’s will better through prayer, look what happens. The purpose of us asking God to act is to teach the world who does not know Him about His loving purposes. And, when the world sees those purposes, they are moved to join His people. Time and time again, when He acts as the result of faithful prayers, the community of believers grows! It happened in Philippi long ago. We will read about it in Jerusalem next week on the day of Pentecost. And if we practice faithfully in our age and location, it will happen here as well! God is always about the increase of His kingdom, at least until His return. Thankfully, mercifully, He has chosen you and me and all those who gather at this Table in time and space, to show His glory and His love to the world around us.