Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter - By the Reverend Dr. Peter R. Powell
Year C: Acts 16:16–34; Psalm 47; Revelation 22:12–21*; John 17:20–26
It is nice to be back at Saint Mary’s this morning. Since Easter I’ve been plowing in other fields. For much of April I reprised a small portion of my course on John at the church in Westport and then last week I was the supply priest at a struggling parish in Fairfield, Connecticut. This is a parish still suffering from the ramifications of ordaining Gene Robinson as bishop. After that event they split with the largest pledgers and most regular parishioners leaving to form a breakaway church. The surviving church has struggled since then to find a reason to exist. They have progressed on many issues, their interim rector for instance is a married gay priest. But they have not figured out what their mission is now that they are no longer the Evangelical Conservative Episcopal Church in Fairfield.
For instance last Sunday, despite it being the first of May, after the 10:00 Mass they had a Cinco de Mayo luncheon. Someone had told them that to attract new members they needed to be more hospitable so they’ve been trying. There were no Hispanics present on Sunday. Indeed the only visitor in the church was me. It seemed to me, and I may be overstating this to make a contrast, that they were hoping gimmicks would attract people to join. Or maybe to keep the ones who were thinking of leaving? Whatever it isn’t working. Since their last rector left pledging is down by more than a quarter. Attendance is down even more. They are surviving because a wealthy woman died and left them enough to live off of for many years.
While I think it is important for churches to be hospitable, and I think we need to take the reality of sociability seriously if we are to form community, I do not think that is why any of us are here. If I wanted to celebrate Cinco de Mayo there’s a wonderful Mexican restaurant close to me, and they celebrated it with gusto on the appropriate day. When I go to church and attend Mass it is not because of a gimmick. It is because I’m looking to learn more about what it means to be a faithful person. How can I better live into my Christianity?
That was the issue in this morning’s Gospel from John 17, the end of Jesus’s High Priestly Prayer. I come here to learn how to pray and why to pray and to explore what difference prayer makes anyway?
We are caught in a bind on prayers. It’s not a bind that Christianity put us in but one that secular thinkers have put us in. It is demonstrably true that prayer does not reliably bring us wealth, health, sports victories, success, good marriages, etc. Some who preach the Prosperity Gospel, most notably in recent years Joel Osteen, have convinced many that if we only pray the right way, and tithe to his church, and buy his books, then we will be financially blessed as he has been financially blessed. Obviously if a member of Osteen’s church isn’t financially blessed, and isn’t beautiful, and isn’t healed then that member hasn’t been praying correctly or giving to Osteen sacrificially, there is a flaw in that member’s faith. You and I would join the secularist in saying that whatever he’s preaching, the prosperity gospel is not prayer. God is not manipulated in that way to grant us health, wealth and the toys that demonstrate success in this world.
So then secularism puts us in another bind on prayer by citing studies showing what happens to the brains of Buddhist monks when they pray Secular Society concludes that prayer is simply a pep talk that we give ourselves. There is no God but it nevertheless does wonderful things for centering us. Of course I’m combining prayer with meditation here but the point is nevertheless true. In a binary world prayer is either our way of petitioning God to get a blessing or it is an internal pep talk useful for calming us down.
Is there a tertium quid? A third way? For those who’ve heard me talk about the Bible you’ve heard me say frequently that God created you and me to be in relationship with God. In other words God created us to surprise God. So God is genuinely interested in what you have to say and engages you and your thoughts in deciding our future, including God’s future. This involves a radical change in the way many of us look at God. When we say, as our reading from Revelation said today, that God is the Alpha and Omega, we are not saying that God is unchanging and that the future is determined.
When I read the Bible I see biblical figures having dialogs with God and God changing God’s mind on what to do. Intercession works. We can bring new information to God and frankly God enjoys and is amused by the new information we bring. Together with God we are creating our future.
It seems to me that many people have rejected faith and belief in God because they have been presented a faith centered on a God which is too small. What I call the “rabbit’s foot god” or the “god of lost causes” is too small. I do not seek belief in a divine Santa Claus. I find meaning in realizing that together God and I are creating my future and that in some small way I am part of creating God’s future. I can keep God’s life interesting.
This winter in our seminar on the Succession Narratives I mentioned that God can redeem any problem. By this I mean that no matter what fix we find ourselves in, if we are faithful, God will work out a future for us. It will not be the future we would’ve had before we got into a situation but it will be a God filled future. I have seen it in my own life. Suffice it to say that the 80s were a turbulent time for me and by 1987 I found myself in a situation I could not have predicted in 1979 and certainly life seemed hopeless. Everything I counted on was lost, and I had been complicit in losing it. I prayed, I argued, and I told God just who was on my list to be called home early. I believed I had been unjustly treated and harshly judged. I lost all hope.
I did not lose faith although it was very weak. A new life awaited me with blessings beyond anything I could’ve imagined. It was not a life I had sought and it was not a life with much in common with anything I had ever done before, but it was a life that gave me meaning. Nearly 30 years later I would join with the late Maya Angelou and say, wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now. It is only by being absolutely dependent upon God that I was able to fully embrace prayer and the gifts of God to add meaning to my life.
I was given the gift of faith, and I have sought to hold onto it. It seems to me that our only hope for attracting new people to our faith is by telling the stories of how we have walked with God and he has given us a future. I know that people are hungering for that. They don’t want to eat Mexican food after a 10:00 AM Mass in suburbia. They want to know that God is listening, caring and working with them not to give them wealth or health but to place them in community and provide them with meaning. God redeemed my life and my ministry. He is doing the same with you. Prayer helps us participate in that redeeming so that we can, whatever we’ve done, enjoy a God-filled future.
Copyright © 2016 Peter Ross Powell
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