Why we must pray — Yesterday’s sermon


A sermon from April 29, 2007 based on Revelations 7:7 – 19 and Psalm 23, entitled, “Why We Must Pray”

One of the truly great souls of the past century belongs to Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Anglican priest who had such a strong hand in helping to overturn apartheid in his country of South Africa, and doing so with a constant commitment to non-violence. Long before apartheid was cracking in South Africa, whenever bishop Tutu would speak to the defenders of apartheid and the status quo, there was a constant, ringing theme of triumph in his words. His message was this:

“We must assert, and assert confidently, that God is in charge. You are not

God, you are mortals. It is God whom we worship and God cannot be

mocked. You have already lost. Come and join the winning side.”

We have already won. How could this be so?

Bishop Tutu was speaking out of his Christian faith, and central to this faith is the conviction that in the resurrection of Jesus victory has been won over the powers of death and evil. The victory is already accomplished in heaven, and it is only a matter of time before it will be worked out here on earth.

Our reading from the Book of Revelation speaks provides an image of this victory. The author writes from confinement on the island of Patmos during a time of intense persecution, when, Christians are being martyred for their refusal to worship Ceasar, a dangerous time indeed, full of violence and chaos and grief. He describes a great vision, something akin to an out-of-body experience he had, in which he was given a glimpse into heaven. And what he sees there is directly in contrast with what he sees here on earth: There is food and water a plenty for everyone, shelter from the scorching heat, and all the tears have been wiped away. And there is peace and harmony, with all races and cultures, united around a common center, the lamb upon the throne. The lamb is Jesus, the man of peace who has given his life upon the cross.

And so on Sunday mornings when we say here at the Parsippany UMC, “There’s always room in the circle,” it is important to keep in mind that we are not simply expressing a nice idea, as in, wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was room in the circle for everyone; rather, we are declaring ultimate truth. Though often there isn’t room in the circle in this world, though often the human family is torn apart by violence, suspicion, bitterness, greed, etc., this world is passing away, but there is a world that already exists that is eternal, and in this world there is room in the circle for everyone.

And so Bishop Tutu could say to the entrenched powers,

“You have already lost; come over to the winning side.”

Now all of this could be interpreted as giving us permission to turn our backs on this world, to focus on, as Karl Marx said, “the pie in the sky”, and let the injustice of this world stand unchallenged. But that is clearly not what Jesus would have us be about. And so the challenge now is to bring into being on earth that which already exists in heaven. Jesus would have us pray each day, “Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.” We are here to help bring God’s about here on earth.

I want to talk again about what it means to be a peacemaker in this world, because there isn’t anything more important in this world than to bring God’s peace into our world. Being a peacemaker isn’t easy, and to large extent this is because it is so eventually the world with all its violence and fear and anger and bitterness and greed takes over our hearts. And when this happens, even if we can manage to do some good deeds in this world, the fear and violence and bitterness and greed that is inside us undermines the good we would do.

A small example. As a father, it is a good thing for me to help my son with his homework, assist him in his learning. On the surface, this is a loving act, right? But if inwardly I am resentful and bitter about having to give this help, my kid is going to sense it on some level of his being, and the good deed will be undermined.

And on the other side, sometimes you don’t have to be doing anything at all, objectively speaking, in terms of “good deeds”, but if you have the bearing of God’s peace within you, your very presence will be a blessing to the people you are with.

So if we are going to be a peacemaker in this world; if we are going to do some good in this world that is so often marked by chaos and bitterness and violence, well, it is essential that we have God’s peace inside of ourselves — that we be living out of that victory already won in heaven. In John’s Gospel, on Easter evening, the disciples are described as huddled in fear behind locked doors. They have heard of Jesus’ resurrection from Mary Magdalene, but they haven’t experienced it for themselves; it hasn’t touched them on the inside. Suddenly Jesus stands in their midst and literally gives them his peace. “Peace be with you,” he says. Then he breathes on them: “Receive the holy spirit.” The resurrection becomes a reality on the inside. Now they are ready to leave the locked doors and go out into this world to do some good.

“So, preacher, tell me how to get the peace of God in my heart, right now?”

We live in the culture of “give to me right now.” Generally speaking, it doesn’t work that way. Living in God’s peace involves a commitment to a lifestyle, and it is not one that the world will give us much encouragement to undertake.

The Gospel writers make it clear that although Jesus was deeply engaged the world, he set aside a great deal of time to be alone to pray, to get away from the brokenness of this world, and simply be in the presence of “Abba”, Daddy. So have all the great saints who followed in his way.

These days we are pleased with ourselves if we manage to set apart 15 minutes for prayer. And we wonder why the world comes to possess our hearts with its anxiety and bitterness. The world we live in has gotten more sophisticated and insidious in its capacity to get inside us with endless hurry and an advertisement bombardments for the values of this world.

When apartheid did finally became unlawful in South Africa after centuries of violence and oppression, Bishop Tutu and others realized that if the nation were truly to be healed, there would need to be a way to truly hear the truth of the evil that had been perpetrated — name and confess it — and then, to the extent possible, forgive and move on — a painful and difficult process, the sort that we tend to avoid, thereby allowing the stuff to live on inside our hearts. For two years Bishop Tutu presided over what was called “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” where every day they would hear the torture and slaughter that had been committed by the victims of the atrocities.

(The following comes from Prayer, by Philip Yancey, pp. 123 – 124)

“The horror stories knew no end. He heard gruesome accounts of beatings, and electric shock torture, and the abuse of pregnant women, and ‘enlacing’ with burning tires. Day after day for nearly two years he listened to stories of deeds from hell acted out in his own country. In the midst of that time a reporter asked him, “Why do you pray?”

Bishop Tutu answered: “If your day starts off wrong, it stays skewed. What I’ve found is that getting up a little earlier and trying to have an hour of quiet in the presence of God, mulling over some Scripture, supports me. I try to have two , three hours of quiet per day and even when I exercise, when I go on the treadmill for thirty minutes, I use that time for intercession. I try to have a map in my mind of the world and I go around the world, continent by continent — only Africa I try to do in a little more detail– and after all of that to God.”

Then he would he would put on his judicial robes and take his seat before a commission that tried to bring truth and reconciliation to a morally strained land. The musician Bono once asked Tutu how he managed to find time for prayer and mediation. Tutu replied, “What are you talking about? Do you think we’d be able to do this stuff if we didn’t?”

I’ve been praying the 23rd psalm for years, but this past week as I read it over I realized more fully the context in which it is written. When we think of the psalm, we think what peaceful, reassuring words we have here. And that it is true. But it is easy to overlook the fact that the words are written in the context of extreme danger and difficulty. The clues to the situation the psalmist is dealing with are hidden in the middle of the psalm: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”, or, as another translation puts it, “the deepest darkness.” We’re talking about the very worst times in life. The psalm also refers to the presence of enemies: there are these people out there who want to destroy the one speaking these words.

Now realizing the context, I hear the first words of the psalm differently.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.

He leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restores my soul.

What is being described is a deep, rich prayer life. One of the things this world would do to us is turn us into “human doings” instead of “human beings.” It robs us of our humanity, our very life, our very soul. We feel pressed to be perpetually in motion, always doing, never simply being.

Prayer is first of all simply resting in the arms of God. The sheep would run itself until it dies of thirst and exhaustion, but the shepherd leads the sheep to the green pastures and makes it lie down, be still. The good shepherd takes the sheep to the still waters where it can drink. For us, as God’s sheep, this means having our very soul restored.

Here’s what developing a lifestyle of prayer means to us:

1) We allow ourselves to experience the simple fact that we already are loved. The Good Shepherd cherishes us. In this world, we tend to be so very desperate to be loved, and we end up doing some unfortunate things out of that desperate need. We end up driving people away. But in the quiet of daily prayer, we discover we already have that which we are most anxious to receive. It takes the desperate edge of our need away.

2) The values of this world begin to loosen their strangle hold on us. We recognize the lie the world would have us live that we must have more, more, more — never enough. We discover in prayer that in fact our cup is overflowing. We recognize other lies as well: that coming out on top isn’t important after all. That success is far less important than holding onto integrity. That image isn’t everything after all.

3) Death loses its sting. In this world we get sucked into this mindset that dying is the worst possible thing. It isn’t. Losing our souls is the worst possible thing, and people are losing their souls routinely in this world. In prayer we sense what John perceived from his prison cell: that there is a realm where all the tears are wiped away, and death is no more.

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