“Beloved, Pray for Us”
Running the Race: Following Jesus Through Life’s Stages
Hebrews 12:1-2; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-25
Rev. Phillip Blackburn
September 30, 2018
It was a beautiful, sun-drenched, late afternoon in Haiti. The sun was setting in the west but the light was that near perfect hue of gold that filmmakers and photographers call the golden hour. The world was awash in bright, gentle, golden colors. We were enjoying this perfect moment not in a house or at the Epiphanie school but in a field, to be specific, it was a soccer pitch. The kids and I were playing soccer with some of our Haitian family. There were children sitting and cheering, but hanging close to their mother because they were uncertain about these tall white people. There was a pig foraging for food that Eliza, one of our number, had decided she needed to catch. And then there was the game. It was a friendly match and a lot of locals had come out to watch. And despite the fact that this was all for fun, and despite the fact that the soccer pitch was less than ideal for a good game, I could not keep my competitive juices quenched. So a ball came over my way and the Haitian defending me and I tore off after it. Well, that is not true exactly. He tore off after it, I felt like I was running in quick sand. And as I saw him easily pull away from me, and as I tried to run faster but couldn’t, I was reminded once more that I am no longer young.
You may not know this about me, but I used to be fast. I ran track in junior high and high school and when I went to the Meadows in Edinburgh with my friends on Saturday mornings to play soccer I was faster than almost all of them. Chasing down balls was my MO, but not anymore. On that golden evening in Haiti the truth of my mortality was reiterated to me again. There are things I used to be able to do that I cannot do anymore. Now, after the sermon I know several of you will say to me, “just wait,” and I concede this, of course, so you needn’t say it to me. But I do bring all this up because you have said those very words to me before. You have lamented to me that there are things you cannot do anymore; things you once did which gave you joy and made you feel useful that have departed with time. For this I am sorry, but I also have things to say.
The point of this brief, three week sermon series, is precisely this problem. What do we do when we can’t do much anymore? Specifically, what do we do as followers of Jesus when we either can’t do what we used to do or do not have time to do what we want to do? If you have ever asked yourself this question, if you have ever seen the metaphorical ball flying over your head, turned to chase it and realized that you were never going to get there, then these three sermons are for you. And today we discuss the cornerstone Christian task. We discuss prayer.
It feels almost like a cliché, having the pastor stand here and talk about praying. And when I have mentioned prayer in response to the complaints listed above I have often seen disappointment wash over the face of the person who could no longer do what they used to do. Surely, they thought, there must be more that I can do than pray. That seems so simple. So little. So small. And of course it feels that way because it is, on the face of itself, so easy to do. I can remember, however, two comments from seminary about prayer that I want to share with you this morning. The first was from our pastoral care professor Ralph Underwood. Ralph was not a very good professor and his class, as you can probably deduce if you have experienced my pastoral care, was not particularly useful, but I do remember this. He told us about a pastor who was asked by a congregant if the pastor would teach them how to pray. As the pastor considered this he had an epiphany. He realized he did not know how to pray himself and, according to Ralph, he quit the ministry immediately. I don’t know if Ralph sprinkled some fairy dust on this or not, but I do know he was serious when he told us this, and he told us as a warning. So you see, for those of us who take prayer seriously, it is no joke, and it is not easy. Perhaps if we considered it to be more challenging then we wouldn’t feel as if we are doing nothing when we do it. Prayer matters.
The second thing we were told about prayer that I still remember came from Sharon George, our mission professor. She told us the first act of mission, before giving money, before convening a committee, before taking a trip or painting a wall or any such thing is prayer. Prayer is the first act of mission. It is, in fact, the most powerful thing we can offer in our efforts to change the world. Prayer shapes our mind, it shapes how we see other people, and it makes certain in our hearts and souls that we remember that when we serve others we do so with Christ as our companion. Prayer shapes this for us. Prayer is the first act of mission. So not only is prayer not easy, it is also foundational if we are going to accomplish anything.
And that bring us to the apostle Paul. He had been separated from the Thessalonians for some time and he longed to come for them. In this brief but heartfelt letter he ministers to them. Finally, by way of conclusion he offers this charge which is emblematic of the Christian life. It talks about encouraging people, about being patient with all, about loving others. And perhaps most importantly, it talks about praying without ceasing. Don’t stop praying, Paul tells us, ever! It is a powerful image, this idea of prayer without ceasing. It is, of course, almost impossible to do but come on, you know we can all do better. I know that I can. I can pray better.
So let me ask you this, how much did you pray this past week? Let me be more specific. Did you pray for Christine Blasey Ford? What about Brett Kavanaugh? Did you pray for him? Did you pray for the senators on the judiciary committee? Did you pray for Dr. Ford’s family? For Judge Kavanaugh’s family? Did you pray for the victims of sexual assault who had their feelings of helplessness brought to the fore by this trial? Did you pray for President Trump, that he might have wisdom and compassion in this situation and be guided by God’s Will? Maybe you did. Maybe you offered all those prayers and you prayed for peace and patience, and you sought to help the weak and encourage the faint hearted. Maybe. But more likely you watched those hearings with anger in your heart. More likely you sat and, if Republican, blamed the Democrats for smearing a judge and, if Democrat, blamed the Republicans for putting such a man on the Supreme Court. Maybe you did a lot more of watching Fox News or MSNBC or reading the Huffington Post or Breitbart than you did praying.
I bring this not up to shame anybody, or to make you feel guilty. I bring this up simply to point out that prayer, that cornerstone activity of the Christian, is something which we can all do better. If you are 23, 53, 83 or 103 we can all do this. We can all pray. And there is plenty to pray for in this world. There are joys to offer, there are friends to commend to God, there are broken places in the world that need healing, there are people who need saving, there are the poor and sick and prisoner who need God’s compassion, there are leaders who need wisdom. To pray for all these things we would need to pray without ceasing. There is no doubt.
Can we do what we used to do? No we cannot. I cannot run down a soccer ball like I once could. We are all limited by the effects of time and age. But you’d better believe that while we can draw breath we can pray. And you’d better believe that pray is real and it is hard and it is important and it changes us and it changes our world. Paul told his brothers and sisters in the Thessalonian church to pray without ceasing, and just so. So I will tell you, if you are frustrated because you cannot do what you once did, if you struggle with the limitations of time and age, then first, before you do anything else, you should fold your hands, bow your head, and offer a long, heartfelt prayer to the God who loves you so much that he sent his only son into this world. You should pray…without ceasing. Amen.