Sunday, July 27, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "The Prayer"

Acts 4:23 to 31

23 After their release, Peter and John returned to the brothers and sisters and reported everything the chief priests and elders had said. 24 They listened, then lifted their voices in unison to God, “Master, you are the one who created the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything in them. 25 You are the one who spoke by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant: Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? 26 The kings of the earth took their stand and the rulers gathered together as one against the Lord and against his Christ. 27 Indeed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with Gentiles and Israelites, did gather in this city against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28 They did what your power and plan had already determined would happen. 29 Now, Lord, take note of their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with complete confidence. 30 Stretch out your hand to bring healing and enable signs and wonders to be performed through the name of Jesus, your holy servant.” 31 After they prayed, the place where they were gathered was shaken. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking God’s word with confidence. (Common English Bible)

“The Way: The Post Jesus, Pre Paul Church,” Week Six

The manifesto topped out at over fifteen hundred pages, and spilling out of every one of those pages was the deranged voice of a virulent racist who considered himself a white knight, charged with the quest of ridding Europe of Muslims, blacks, ‘cultural’ Marxists, and leftists.  Yet ironically, the manifesto would go on to quote Indian peace activist Mahatma Gandhi and socialist writer George Orwell.  Out of these blazing, blaring, blatantly offensive series of contradictions you could sense no reason, no logic, only a virulent primal scream from the throat of Anders Behring Breivik that led him to, three years ago nearly to the day, slaughter 77 of his countrypeople in Norway, the majority of them children at a summer camp on Utoya island.

In a country with literally less than 2 percent of the population of the United States, 1 in every 4 Norwegians polled said they knew somebody who had been affected by Breivik’s massacre.  And when it came time to try Breivik in court, the Norwegian prosecutors came up with a way to lend voice to those affected and even those who were murdered, by reading into the record, alongside each autopsy report, a biographical tribute of the victim written by their friends and family.

Every single victim was accorded this respect.  All 77 of them.  And in doing so, another manifesto was written, one that continues to be added to by the attack’s survivors, one of whom took to the Internet site Reddit this week to answer questions about his experience of the attack.  One thing he shared was this:

After what happened I’ve felt a stronger sense of responsibility towards helping others.  I care much more about other people in need than what I did before, and I learned that anything is possible as long as you’re determined to make it happen.  Perhaps a bit cliché, but after I surpassed the emotional damage, I felt like a much more capable person…whenever I see someone in need, I always rush to help as soon as I can.

And to me, honestly, that is just about everything that a prayer to God could include…strength bestowed upon you far beyond whatever you thought possible in your frailty and mortality, and the desire to use that newfound strength for everybody but yourself.  It’s that manifesto of selflessness that was built up by others in response to the evil of Breivik, and it is the sort of prayer that the apostles reach for in similarly dramatic fashion upon the release of Peter and John from captivity.

This is a sermon series that has been ongoing now for a while!  We began it several weeks ago for two reasons.  One is that the day of Pentecost (the day when the Holy Spirit comes down upon the remaining Apostles) fell on Sunday, June 8, this year, and oftentimes, when we preachers preach on Pentecost, we just do that one story about the Holy Spirit, but then we go on to something else, neglecting the many amazing stories that follow.  The other is that it’s now officially summer, and summer is the season for action movies at the cinema, and (increasingly frequently) their sequels, which may or may not be as good as the original/worth attending at all/a blatant money grab by movie studios (depending on just how bad the sequel is!).  The Gospels have their own sequel in the New Testament: Acts of the Apostles, commonly referred to simply as Acts.  Acts is written by Luke (the writer of the Gospel which bears his name) precisely as a sequel in his two volume set of historical accountings of Christ’s ministry and the early church, and it is, to my way of thinking, far better than many of the sequels we are used to today!  So this is a sermon series meant to take us through a Biblical sequel to the Gospels in addition to picking up where the Pentecost story leaves off, and we began with the massive response to Peter’s first sermon: a conversion of 3,000 people.  Since then, we have also seen Peter’s first healing miracle followed by Peter’s second sermon, and today, we see the first explicit pushback to those deeds by the religious authorities in Jerusalem: Peter and John are arrested, imprisoned, and interrogated, leading up to Peter’s inspired reply as well as the religious leaders’ response to Peter’s reply.  Today, we begin to move forward from that pivotal episode with this prayer that is prayed by the apostles after Peter and John are released.

And the first thing to remember about this prayer is that this prayer is, too, a response to what has happened with the imprisonment and interrogation of the church’s earliest leaders: the text says, “When they heard it,” and “it” is in reference to what the religious leaders had said to Peter and John and what they tried to get the Apostles to do: to stop ministering in the name of Jesus.  They have heard the words, the testament, of those who were ultimately working against God’s will, and saw the need to create new words, a new testament, a new manifesto.  And what better way to begin that process than through a prayer?  Those who hate them have said their piece, and now the time has come to rewrite the experience with something new to say.

What is said, though, is really quite remarkable, especially in verse 29: “Now Lord, take note of their threats and enable your servants to speak with complete confidence.  Stretch out your hand to bring healing.”  Those words perhaps best encapsulate one of the biggest differences between The Way (that is to say, the earliest “church”) and the Judaism taught (or mistaught) by the temple leaders.

Last fall, our Monday evening Bible study class went through a sampling of the Psalms, and one of the recurring themes that emerged from several, especially those attributed to King David, was one of, “I am surrounded by my enemies, please, Lord, smite them for me.”  And that’s a perfectly human response…and it’s one that overlaps into Christianity as well with Paul’s refrain from Romans 12: “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God, for “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.”  Leaving room for God to smite those who are the most evil is something that carries over from Testament to Testament quite easily.

But in this prayer, the followers of The Way do not even pray for that.  They are not about to avenge themselves, per Paul’s instructions, but nor are they petitioning God to avenge Peter and John’s arrest and humiliation either.  Instead, they pray for confidence and for, I love this, healing.

When your enemies persecute you and harass you and arrest you on trumped up charges, you don’t get mad.  You don’t get even, either.  You get to praying for healing.  That’s THE Way.

And that’s no small thing, praying for healing and for more signs to be performed, because it goes hand in hand with the prayer for confidence.  When we find ourselves in danger, we tend to find confidence elsewhere, in having locks on our doors and guns in our cases, but the apostles are finding confidence entirely and exclusively in God.

That is, in a nutshell, what prayer can and should do.  It is also honestly, probably what prayer has not been able to do enough of for me or you or us.  It is one thing to pray, and it is entirely another to be moved and changed by that act of praying.  But as the 19th century Danish theologian, philosopher, and all around crank (and thus, for obvious reasons, my hero) Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “the function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather, to change the nature of the one who prays.”

The function of prayer is not to influence God, but to change the nature of the one who prays.

(You may have heard a similar refrain from the 20th century pastor and writer Oswald Chambers, who wrote, “To say that prayer changes things is not as close to the truth as saying, prayer changes ME and then I change things.”  I’m convinced that he cribbed that from Kierkegaard. J )

But whichever wording you use, the sentiment, the hypothesis behind it, remain the same: God is not somehow moved by our prayers, but rather, God uses our own prayers upon us and commissions us as newly changed vessels and agents for His ministry, His will, and His kingdom.

And a lot of that has to do with rewriting the script that the world has imposed upon you.  It is what the survivors of not only the Utoya attacks in Norway have done, but those who have survived terror, persecution, and degradation at every turn have done: African American Gospel music came out of such horror during enslavement, and so has the Taize worship tradition out of Nazi occupied France during the Second World War.

How we can rewrite history in accordance with our prayers, our spirituality, and our faith in God remains to be seen…how can we rewrite the ill and terrible and evil things that happen to us and that are happening in our world through our prayers?

How can we rewrite the violence in Gaza through our prayers?

How can we rewrite the reign of terror in eastern Ukraine through our prayers?

How can we rewrite the destruction of drugs and addiction and domestic abuse here in Longview?

How can we rewrite our own hearts, sinful and broken though they may be, with the love of God and the love for God that we know dwells within there?

And perhaps above all else, how can we rewrite all these things, that much evil, that much hurt, that much sin, while still wrestling with the reality that we, too, are prone to lacking confidence in ourselves, and, like the apostles in Acts 4, in need to add that to an already length list of prayers?

Well…for that, we turn to Jesus, who He is and what He taught us: that the greatest commandment is, after all, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind.

May the totality of our love for God be enough, just enough, to begin to budge us and shake us towards a better world, a better creation, a better kingdom for our Lord.

May the scope and scale and force of our love for God be enough, just enough, for the evil to end, and for the healing to begin.

And may that be enough for us to feel confident enough in our faith to stand before God in our next prayer and say, “Here I am.  What is it you are calling me to do next?”  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 27, 2014

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