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Practice What You Pray (Thoughts and Prayers)

June 27, 2016

“Practice What You Pray” (or “Thoughts and Prayers”) Exodus 14:10-18; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 © 6.26.16 Ordinary 13C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The Israelites were in a pickle. Pharaoh and his chariots were bearing down on them from behind. Ahead lay a body of water they couldn’t cross. What were they to do? Moses assured them that they didn’t have to “lift a finger,” as a paraphrase has it. God would take care of everything.

I imagine Moses and everyone got quite a shock when Yahweh begged to differ. He wanted to know what they were doing standing there praying for deliverance. As the same paraphrase, The Living Bible, puts it, he commanded the leader and his people to “Quit praying and get moving.”

Centuries later, seventy disciples faced a huge task. They were the advance team to prepare the way for Jesus to come into towns and villages as he made his way to Jerusalem. They had to create excitement, scout venues and available hospitality, and teach about the Kingdom of God. There was so much to be done and so few to do it. Surely it was up to God to ensure success. So they needed to pray for laborers, Jesus said. But no sooner had they begun their petitions than Jesus commissioned them to go out as vulnerable, dependent workers doing a dangerous job, like lambs among wolves. Pray for laborers, Jesus says, and then answer your own prayer by signing up.

It’s become commonplace in our day when there is a crisis in the community or the nation or when someone experiences loss or goes to surgery to offer “thoughts and prayers.” And there is value in that. We mean to say to the person or group: “You’re not alone. I’m with you. We care.” When you are in the depths of despair, when tragedy strikes, knowing someone is with you in the dark to help can bring peace.

And we want as well to express the power of faith. Even when someone cannot pray for himself or herself, cannot believe, you or I can believe enough for two. Telling a hurting soul that she or he is in our thoughts and prayers is a way to impart a sense of the presence of God, to say that God ultimately is in control, that though it seems unlikely right now, God can be depended on to bring healing and hope. Everything, we say, is in the hands of God, and prayer is a way, perhaps the way, to acknowledge that.

But the two stories we heard suggest strongly that while offering “thoughts and prayers” is lovely and right, it’s not enough. Prayers need to be enacted, thoughts fleshed out in responsible and compassionate ministry and aid. We can’t claim to have someone in our thoughts and prayers, then do nothing, if it’s within our power, to alleviate their suffering, prevent another tragedy, provide aid and comfort and hope. We have to practice not just what we preach, but what we pray.

The reason we go to God in prayer is not to escape action, but to gain new strength and insight for our calling. You and I are given power by God to do his work; we are trusted to carry out our tasks and held accountable for our faithfulness. Ordained or not, every one of us is a minister of Jesus Christ, summoned into his service.

So, when you or I pray for a person or a cause, we take on responsibilities. God counts on us to act as well as pray.

Following the Orlando club massacre, comedian Samantha Bee sharply criticized politicians who offered thoughts and prayers, but did nothing more. Her particular target was Florida governor Rick Scott, who claimed the biggest thing anyone could do was to pray. “You heard the man,” she retorted, “the biggest, most helpful thing you can do to ensure this never happens again is sit quietly in a room with your eyes closed talking to nobody.” She then called attention to the passage from James telling us that faith without works is dead. After feigning surprise with a common four-letter expletive, she exclaimed: “We were supposed to do something while we prayed?” (http://www.dailykos.com/stories/2016/6/14/1538660/–We-pray-after-every-mass-shooting-and-yet-they-keep-happening-Samantha-Bee-spot-on-powerful; caution: R/TV-MA language.)

Pastor and blogger John Pavlovitz offers his take on “thoughts and prayers,” criticizing pastors and politicians who either do nothing or actually make situations worse. “You can think and pray all you want, but until you actually move, you’ll be part of this.

“Don’t just leave this in the hands of God. God has given you hands too.

“God has given you life and this place and time, and maybe God is asking you to do something to affirm life right now.

“Maybe God wants you to be the answer to the prayer” (http://johnpavlovitz.com/2016/06/22/gun-apologists-save-your-thoughts-and-prayers/).

It’s not necessary to agree with Bee’s or Pavlovitz’s views on banning the AR-15 or on LGBTQ inclusion to accept the truth of their comments about prayer. They are broadly applicable beyond mass shootings and the facile responses of politicians and preachers. For example: Do we want the church to grow? Then we need to invite someone new to worship or a fellowship event. Do we care about the sick, the sorrowing, the lonely? Then we put feet on our thoughts and prayers by visiting people and offering substantive help. Do we pray together “forgive us our debts?” Then we must also “forgive our debtors.” Do we want justice for those who are wronged? We need to speak out or write a letter or sign a petition or post a meme or take up the cause in some active way. At least reflect on issues in a reasoned and sustained manner and see what can be done instead of being part of the sound bite-driven chatter and conflict of our day. Do we want to be open to God’s will? Then we give up our comfortable and clinging security and become ready to change and risk.

The fundamental question is: what price are we willing to pay to see our prayers answered? We may pray a prayer of intercession: “God help my neighbor.” Or a prayer of supplication: “God help me.” But in either case we need to move on to a prayer of dedication: “God send me.” “God teach me.” We quit praying and get moving! We go our way and out of our way. A prayer of dedication is the kind of prayer that calls us to act, either on our own behalf or for somebody else. Some writers once described dedication this way: “Real prayer eventually unites [God with us] so completely that God’s love sweeps [us] off our feet into the stream of God’s action. And dedication is the willingness to be carried by God into his service…. Dedication is the step, in prayer, between talk to God and action under God, action with God” (Mac and Ann Shaw Turnage, The Mystery of Prayer).

Practicing what we pray is risky business. Jesus told the Seventy he was sending them out like lambs among wolves. Not a particularly encouraging image for lambs! We can hardly imagine anything more defenseless, vulnerable, and bound to die than a lamb encircled by a pack of hungry wolves. But that’s the condition under which, into which, Jesus sends us.

What kind of danger might we encounter? We may make mistakes, for one. We may be criticized or maligned. Our cherished viewpoints may be challenged, and we may have to change in light of new facts. Someone may make you or me the brunt of an attack on the church in general, and blame us for all sorts of ills for which we are not personally responsible.

But in conflict there is the potential for new understanding. And in error and failure (if we will allow them), the seeds of growth and maturity. The pain of change may be also the pangs of labor, as a new vision is born. And, if we can weather the storm of anger and hurt, someone may come to Christ because a Christian at long last took the time to listen and care, not simply mouth pious words.

Practicing what we pray is also an urgent and focused undertaking. Jesus instructed those he sent not to greet anyone on the road or move from house to house. That sounds rather unfriendly, but we need to understand that greetings in that day and time were long and involved. And to go from house to house would also waste time better spent sharing the good news. Better to stay focused on the mission. The time was short; our Lord’s followers had to get on with the task at hand!

It is still our vocation to invite people to acknowledge Christ now. In fact, to bring people to Christ and to glorify Christ is the mission of the church. If we’re not doing that, we’re something other than a church. It is our urgent task to share good news, because every day people face crisis, a time for decision. And every day, the grace of God in Christ is offered to help and heal. How can we let a day go by without sharing it?

Finally, practicing what we pray is an enterprise of faith. Jesus told the Seventy to leave behind wallets, bags, sandals. Anything travelers might regard as must-haves. The Seventy were to be believe that their wants and needs would be supplied. In every town or village, there would be someone who would receive the message and show hospitality to God’s servants.

I suggest that having such faith today means sorting out the essential from the incidental, the central from the peripheral, the best from the merely good. It’s understanding what’s important in life and living accordingly.

An old Steve Martin movie called The Jerk has his character rise from poverty to riches as a famous inventor. But disgruntled consumers bring a class-action suit against him for health problems due to effects of eyeglasses he developed. The settlement has now left him with nothing, and he has been evicted from his expensive home. As he prepares to go, Martin collects whatever it is he thinks he has to have as he goes back on the street in poverty. He picks up first one item, then another. Each time his refrain is “All I need is this” lamp, this tennis racket, this chair. By the time he’s finished, he has more than he can carry. Things are falling on the floor behind and around him. Martin couldn’t decide what he really needed. That’s what makes him so pathetic and pitiful.

There’s so much that seems necessary to us. But like that penniless inventor, we don’t know what we really need. We keep getting things, only to find they don’t satisfy. We devise ways and means to keep order in our lives and our organizations, but still we feel confused and insecure. We spend our time and energy on pursuits both meaningless and noble, and then find that we have little or nothing left for service to God. Jesus bids us look deep inside, find out what’s in there, learn what’s truly essential, and answer the question: what do you really want? Then he invites us to embrace his way, because having Jesus in our lives is how we know peace, security, comfort, satisfaction.

“Prayer changes things,” goes the old cliché. But more than that, prayer changes people, you and me, our neighbors. We become more fully committed to do God’s will, to work for a world where pain and violence and greed and hatred and all the long litany of ills is no more. We do our part, inspired and faithful and vulnerable, to banish every power that would hurt or destroy, the demonic forces that are opposed to God’s will. Our lives move to the rhythm St. Benedict first danced to: ora et labora, pray and work. Thoughts and prayers backed up by faithful help, persistent effort. We practice the presence of the One to whom we belong, who knows us by name, who calls us to labor in his harvest. We practice what we pray.

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