10 02 11 Praying Together

My sermon from October 2nd, 2011 based on 2 Chronicles 7:14-15 and Matthew 6:5-15.  1st of 5 in “Better Together” series.

On their wedding day a bride and a groom stand before God and before others who are gathered on behalf of the community and they make promises to God and to one another. They promise to bring their lives together, to work for the good of one another, to work for the good of their family, and to support each other through life.

In much the same way people make commitments when they pledge to become a part of a church. Now, I understand that the commitments we make to the church are not typically undertaken with the same level of depth or seriousness with which we make commitments to our spouses. However, I do believe we are called to take seriously the commitments we make to our church.

This morning we kick-off our “Better Together” series. Through the five week of this series we’ll be talking about two significant realities regarding our lives of faith. On the one hand we as individuals are better when we come together with others, we were designed for relationship and partnership and cooperation. At the same time we as a community of faith are better when all who are involved are participating and engaged together. Both as individuals and as a community of faith, we are better together.

It is my hope that, through this series, we will come to understand that being connected to and involved with a church is different than anything else that we do or are a part of in the world. We might be members of a book club, or a civic organization, or a bowling team and all of these things can be good things. However, our engagement with those different activities should look very different than our relationship with the church looks. All of those things are important. They can bring value to our lives and to the world, but none of them are to be the core of who we are in the same way that our relationship with God lived out in community is to be the core of who we are.

When we fully belong to a community of faith, we are making a statement about not just who we are, but whose we are. When we are involved with a church we commit ourselves to being a part of the body of Christ. As people who commit ourselves to being a part of that body through a community of faith, we make the statement that we belong to God and that we belong to one another. We make the statement and seek to live into the reality that we are better together.

As we get rolling with this series I want to say a word about church membership. There is a significant difference between being a member of a church and actually belonging and being an engaged part of the community. There are people who are members of our church who have not darkened the doorways of our building for months if not years. For many of these members I believe it would be safe to assume that their membership clearly isn’t a definitive part of who they are and how they live day to day and week to week.

At the same time there are some of you even here who might not formally consider yourselves members, but you attend regularly, you’re involved in the life of the church outside of worship, you serve the church and the community, and you support the church in a variety of ways. Many of you clearly make the church and your relationship with God and others through the church a priority in who you are and who you are becoming, even if you don’t formally consider yourself a member.

In the end, I’m not concerned about who calls themselves a member or not. Ultimately I’m concerned about those of you who are interested in growing in your relationship with God in Christ through active participation in a community of faith. If you are not a member of this church I believe this sermon series is as much for you as it is for members. I want you to hear about the pledges and promises that are made when a person commits to living as a part of a United Methodist faith community. I want you to begin contemplating whether or not it might make sense for you to formally become a member.

If you are a member of this church, I want to invite you in these coming weeks to be thinking prayerfully about the commitments that you have made and to be giving thoughtful consideration to how you might grow more into these promises or these vows in the coming years.

When a person joins a United Methodist Church they pledge to uphold that church in five ways; with their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. As we begin our conversation about belonging this morning let’s take a few minutes to look at the first way in which we pledge to support a faith community when we make a commitment to it; with our prayers.

Interestingly enough, just last week I heard from a member of the congregation saying that she thought a sermon series on prayer might be helpful in at some point in the future. This person identified questions that she has about how we’re supposed to pray and how we know that prayer is working and some of the logistical tactical things that surround prayer. I am excited about the possibility of putting together a series like this in the future, but I want to be careful not to try to preach the entire series this morning!

I want to begin this morning by providing a simple assurance that there aren’t really right and wrong ways to pray. At the most basic level, prayer is a conversation with God, a conversation that can take a couple of shapes. This conversation can be ongoing. I encourage you throughout the course of the day to keep a dialogue going with God, sharing both those things that excite you as well as those that make you anxious with God. I also encourage you in that dialogue to be listening for God, for the little nudges that we often experience, but often silence or ignore in the midst of our busyness.

While prayer can be an ongoing conversation it is also something for which we should set aside some dedicated time and energy. I encourage you each day to find a simple 5-10 minutes to be in prayer with God. As you carve out that time, don’t worry too much about the how-to, simply find the time to sit and to be with God. Mother Teresa was once asked by a reporter what she said when she prayed and answered, “nothing, I just listen.” The reporter then asked what God said and Mother Teresa’s response was, “nothing, God just listens.” Find time to be with God even if it is just to sit, just to listen.

The books of 1st and 2nd Chronicles are two books of the bible that receive far too little attention in many churches today. In his commentary work on the books Leslie C. Allen explains that the dominant theme of Chronicles is that of exile and restoration. Specifically that the degree to which God’s people are able to experience God’s love in exile is significantly impaired, not because of God refusing to engage with God’s people. But because of the self-imposed human separation of the exile. There is a need for restoration in order for God’s people to fully experience God’s love. God is there, waiting, wanting, but it is up to us to reconnect.

In the text that was read a few minute ago we hear the voice of God speaking words of this promise, “14if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 15Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place.”

As we seek to reconnect to God’s love for us, just as the Israelites did during their time in exile, we are called to turn back to God, to humbly pray, and to turn from our wicked ways toward the goodness and the love that God offers to us. There isn’t a specific set of instructions of mechanics that must be followed as we turn back to God in prayer, we’re simply called to do so humbly and intentionally. Again, just speak. Or just listen.

As a pastor I often get the impression that people feel a need to be good enough to pray, especially publicly. There seems to be this sense that in order to be effective or even allowed, prayers are to be thoughtfully worded and poetically articulated. I often sense from members of churches a hesitation to or resistance about prayer because they feel that they’re somehow not good enough.

As we talk about how we can support our community of faith through prayer, the words from today’s Matthew reading are instructive, “…whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father… When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

Prayer doesn’t need to be complicated or flowery or showy. To support your church through your prayers you simply need to carve out time and to be intentional about connecting with God in prayer in simple conversational ways. This is not so much about changing God as it is about connecting with God so that you might experience God’s love and hear God’s call for you.

An example of this would be when we pray for healing. We can trust that God is already at work for healing in the midst of pain and suffering, even before we pray. However, our prayers for healing play an important part in connecting us to that healing and can provide us with an increased mindfulness of our role in that. Rebecca Hodges, a member of our congregation had a powerful experience with the prayers of this community this summer and I asked her to share part of it with us.

(Video of Rebecca’s Story)

And while our primary objective in prayer shouldn’t be to change God, we know that there is something mysterious and powerful that can and does happen through prayer. There have been a number of studies over the last couple of decades that at least seem to provide some level of connection between the healing that a person experiences and the degree to which they and/or others were in prayer for healing. Our primary objective in prayer should be to connect with God and to align ourselves with God’s work in the world, but we can also trust in the power of prayer (even if we can’t fully understand it).

Finally, prayer provides powerful connections beyond our connection with God. As Rebecca elaborated on the experience she had being supported by this congregation’s prayers this summer she shared something else that I want to leave you with this morning.

(Second Video – When there are no other words…)

I invite you to be mindful of the ways in which you might pray for your church family. I trust you will be able to experience God’s blessings and that you will have the opportunity to be a blessing to others. As we pray together, we truly are “Better Together.”

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