The 9th Sunday after Pentecost
11 August AD 2019
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon, IL
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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I’ve been thinking all week about the two most recent massacres in this country that happened last weekend, and wondering if I ought to say anything about them from the pulpit. Then a friend posted a quote on Facebook from George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who had this to say to clergy,
Don’t spend all your time worrying about the wider issues. Don’t look at the huge picture. Look at the picture you have. You are the rector here. Spend your time on that and don’t go darting about trying to solve national issues. Teach the Scriptures.
And he’s absolutely right. I’ve said before that clergy have no business getting caught up in the politics of certain issues, which is pretty much all we’ve been hearing over the past week. But what we have here on Sunday mornings is a local gathering of Christians who want to look beyond the tiresome black-and-white wrangling in Washington, and want to know what the Good News of Jesus has to say that will help us process what’s going on in the world. And as Lord Carey says, the parish priest’s job is to spend time on what we can do here, rather than “darting about trying to solve national issues.” And if that’s helpful to people in the pews, then so much the better.
One of the reactions that has become predictable in the wake of mass shootings that bugs me is when people talk about sending “thoughts and prayers.” What bugs me is that it’s become so overused that it comes off sounding like an empty expression that does little more than make the people who say it feel as if they’ve done their part in healing the nation. What are they thinking about? I ask myself. Are they really praying? And if so, what are they praying for, and to whom are they praying? I’m sorry for sounding cynical, but I know some atheists who use that expression. Atheists don’t pray, because they don’t believe anybody out there is listening.
So, following Lord Carey’s advice, that’s what I want to spend some time on today. What does it mean when people send thoughts and prayers on social media? It’s such a worn out expression that I can’t imagine it means very much any more. But what should it mean to people who confess the lordship of Jesus and believe in his resurrection? Thinking and praying are things every one of us ought to be doing, not only as the default response to horrible events, but as a preemptive strike, as an ongoing activity. Praying in time of crisis is good and important. But it’s the Church’s business to be praying all the time.
There’s always the danger of thinking that prayer is an occasional thing, like, “Say a prayer for me because I’m having surgery this week.” Or that it’s essentially an incantation: People sometimes anonymously publish a prayer to St Anthony, the patron of lost causes, in the classified section of the newspaper, with instructions to repeat it every day for three, or seven, or nine days, and you’ll get what you ask for. That one goes hand in hand with the thing you hear people say sometimes—“Prayer works”—which reflects a not so good understanding of what prayer is. It’s not an incantation, and it’s not like rubbing a brass lamp to make the genie appear, who will do whatever you command. And it’s certainly not something we do to try to get God to change his mind. That would imply that his will is not perfect. It would also imply that we think we know what God is thinking, and what he ought to be doing. All those kinds of prayers come out of a consumerist mindset: “Dear Lord, give me what I need, and I won’t trouble you again until I need you to do something else for me.”
So what’s wrong with praying for a good outcome from surgery, etc? Nothing at all, as long as that’s not the only time you pray, and the only kind of thing you take to God in prayer. That’s because prayer isn’t just an incantation, or a thing you do in the heat of the moment in order to appease the gods. Unfortunately there are those who think that’s what God is like, that he’s sitting at his divine computer just itching to hit the smite button unless somebody sends thoughts and prayers on Facebook. That is not the God of Jesus Christ. He’s a loving God, who created heaven and earth and all things out of love, who sent his Son into the world to die so that we could live, because he loves us that much. He doesn’t want to smite us; he wants to have a parent-child relationship with us. And that requires ongoing engagement, conversation, which is what prayer at its best is.
A couple of weeks ago we read how the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, and he gave them what we know as the Lord’s Prayer as the model of what the content of our prayer should look like. That’s why we pray it as a key part of every worship service. But it was by following Jesus for three or so years, and observing how and when he prayed, that the disciples learned what the life of prayer should be like. And it’s by paying attention to their description of it in the gospels, and to the teaching of the apostles, that we learn that as well. Jesus’ whole mortal life was one continuous prayer, a life of constant communion with his Father, just as it was before he became incarnate, and has been ever since. And that, believe it or not, is what he wants for us. Think about the ideal parent-child relationship, and imagine one much greater and far more intimate than that. That’s what our heavenly Father wants to have with every one of us, a life as devoted to him as he is to you and me, and that’s called worship.
“I appeal to you therefore,” Paul says, “by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Rom 12:1). Just as Christ Jesus devoted his entire being to the work of our salvation, so we who have been joined to him in baptism are to devote ourselves to God in furthering that work among all people. It’s an outworking of the two great commandments: love God with all you’ve got and all you are, and love your neighbor as yourself. Rightly understood, that means that our devotion to God, our worship of God, manifests itself in love and service to all people.
You can see that kind of devotion going all the way back to when God called Abraham and Sarah out of their homeland to go to a place they didn’t know, for a reason they didn’t understand. They went because they trusted God. They “looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God,” a city which still hasn’t been revealed in our day. The reason became clear in Jesus. Through Abraham God built a model homeland for his people that was an image of the greater homeland that is yet to come, where sorrow and pain will be no more (Rev 21:4). And because we are Abraham’s children by faith, we continue to look forward to that peaceful city. Abraham “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness,” and so should we. That’s what we’re praying for when we say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
So when we pray, we’re not just having a conversation with God, or informing God of things we think he ought to know. We are conforming ourselves to him, aligning our weak, imperfect wills with his perfect will, getting ourselves to the point of wanting for ourselves and for the world what he wants for us and for the world. “Don’t be afraid, little flock,” Jesus says, “for it’s your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” That’s what he wants for us, and that’s what we want for all people. It’s in conforming ourselves to God, and our wills to God’s will, that our whole life becomes a continuous offering of prayer, and a continuous outpouring of love for our neighbor.
So when it comes to something so awful as a mass murder, “thoughts and prayers” ought to mean something really significant. We think seriously about the poor people who suffer, we think about what we in O’Fallon might be able to do for them in Dayton or El Paso. And we offer them up to God in prayer. That’s what we do after the fact. But even before the event happens, we need to be offering ourselves up as living sacrifices, that God would use us in ways that would prevent another such occurrence from happening. And that takes us back to the basic mission of the Church in the world.
St Peter describes the Church as “a holy priesthood,” whose calling is “to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1Pet 2:5). The basic job description of a priest is to stand between God and his people, offering up prayers and sacrifices to God on their behalf, and speaking God’s word to them, proclaiming, as Peter says, “the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (2:9). That kind of priesthood includes all Christians, not just the ordained clergy.
So “thoughts and prayers” is more than the empty gesture it appears to be on social media. When you’re a Christian, you’re thinking about the world all the time. You’re offering it up to God all the time, with the prayer that the world, and everybody in it, “will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God” (Hab 2:14), and with the willingness to do whatever it takes to speak and to minister God’s love to a people who badly need to hear about it and to experience it. And just maybe what happened in El Paso and Dayton last week won’t happen in O’Fallon or somewhere else this week. And just maybe the polarization that’s paralyzing our national leaders will be transformed in to cooperation, because as the present Archbishop of Canterbury has said, “When the Church prays, the world changes.” In the Name of…
Ian C. Wetmore+