At the beginning of this mass we prayed “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.” What exactly were we praying for?
What power does God have that we expect God to give to us? I want to suggest to you this evening that God has given us the power of prayer. This may sound rather trite. I could sit in this chapel praying all day while the world goes by with all its pressing needs, including the needs of people in great distress. And you would be right to look askance at me if I offered to pray for any of them without doing what was in my power to provide for their material needs. Or you might be skeptical if I told someone who was demanding that their rights be respected and their legitimate needs be provided that they just needed to go and pray more. The Bible itself pronounces harsh judgment on these attitudes. But consider the power of the prayer of the virgin Mary, who was overshadowed with the Holy Ghost after giving nothing more to God than the simple ‘yes’ of faith. With God literally inside of her, she pronounces this song and prayer of vision and strength. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” for the Lord has magnified me!
Prayer is how we access God’s power to help us survive, grow, and become holy. There was a woman named Corrie ten Boom who, along with her family, hid Jews in her home during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Her guests miraculously escaped when the Gestapo raided her house, but she was arrested along with her sister and father. Her father died in prison, and she and her sister were eventually sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, a women’s camp about 50 miles from Berlin. Corrie’s sister eventually died in the camp, but she was mistakenly released, and able to tell her story. She recounts that when the two of them were first shown the crowded cots upon which they would sleep with several other prisoners, they noticed that they were infested with fleas, and that was the moment when she was most tempted to despair. But they had smuggled in a Bible, and her sister remembered the passage they had read the previous night, which happens to be our New Testament reading today: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
This might not have been the right advice for everyone in that situation, and we must remember and celebrate all of the tactics that helped people survive in places like that, or other situations of extreme cruelty, oppression, or trauma. But it worked for them. They made it a daily discipline, not to find something to be thankful for in some trite way, but to give thanks for everyone and everything in their experience. They started with what was easier to thank God for, like each other, and moved to what was harder, like the women in their crowded beds, and the fleas. Let me be clear: they were not thankful for having to share a tiny, wretched bed with too many other women and with fleas. But they were thankful for each of those women, and each of those fleas as God’s creations in their own right. Their prayers were an exercise in learning to turn their whole existence into prayer, without ceasing, they accessed God’s power to give life and dignity to the powerless. And that is what we are expressing and cultivating when we pray.
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.” Jesus read these words at his home synagogue and proclaimed their fulfillment. Anointed is the meaning of the Hebrew and Aramaic word messiah. He was the anointed one because his life was a perfect communion with the one he called Father through the Holy Spirit before the worlds began. And so, whatever Jesus did or endured in the world, he transformed it by exposing it to the hidden current of generosity and justice that runs deeper in creation than any of us are able to see. But he knew about it and could always access it because he was its source.
And he did this because he wanted us to have the power that he has. And the more he initiates us into his relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit, the more we do have it. The Spirit of the Lord God is also upon us, because the Lord has anointed us. “He has clothed me with the garments of salvation,” Isaiah says. That means that our communion with God is natural and particular to us as a set of clothes we’ve been wearing for a long time, perhaps days on end. The power of prayer can make us holy and draw others into the life of God. But first and foremost, it’s like those clothes. It’s how we survive the cold. And when we can, we share it with others so they can survive too.
The power of prayer is the power to transform whatever we experience. It will exalt the humble and meek and–eventually–cast the mighty from their thrones, so that they too may be truly lifted up. It fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich empty away–so that they might hunger and be filled. Through it, we too may be anointed and overshadowed by the Holy Spirit like Mary. We too may have God inside of us, and be the gateway through which God comes into the world.
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.
Sermon preached on Sunday, April 9, 2017
The Rev. Stacy Alan
I have a confession to make. I haven’t been able to look at what’s been happening in Syria. It’s not just that I haven’t seen any of the videos. Beyond glancing at comments in social media and reading headlines, until last night, after I wrote these words, I hadn’t read an article, I hadn’t looked at photographs. I changed the radio when the story came up. I can’t. I won’t. A little of both. I also haven’t been able to look at the U.S. response, our launching of missiles: didn’t read an article, didn’t listen to an analysis.
Until this morning, I didn’t know that 18 people had been killed last week in Chicago, or dozens of worshippers in two churches in Egypt. I know it’s happening, but I’d rather not look.
I’m not proud of this. Neither am I proud of how little I understand of the situation. I have been supportive of Syrian refugees and would like us to receive more families. I would love for us to find a just solution to the violence suffered disproportionately be young people of color in our city. But it’s in the abstract, at a distance. I can’t look. I don’t have to look. I can close my eyes.
So I read that long narrative from Matthew, and I got to the part about Gethsemane, where Jesus takes Peter and James and John and is grieved and agitated—even to death. I read
Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said . . . , “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? . . . [T]he spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak”
And I felt like Jesus was looking straight through Peter at me. “Can you not stay with me?” he said. “Can you not look?” “I needed you.” No, Jesus, I said. I can’t. Like Peter, I can’t sit here and know that you are in pain, see your grief and your struggle and not know what to do. He just looked at me and turned back to his prayer.
It’s hard to look. So hard. Jesus wrestling with God when he’s the one who is supposed to be in charge, he’s the one who knows what we’re supposed to do. So hard to know of children suffering, and not to know what to do. So hard to know the gunshots fly a short bus ride from where I stand.
And it’s hard, not just because, as human beings, we are supposed to feel compassion. It’s hard because I, like the disciples, have already made a commitment. I already told Jesus I’d follow him. At this point neutrality and ignorance and apathy are not options. Jesus has already told me that he is to be found in those who suffer. But all I can do is close my eyes.
But, as usual, Jesus has shown me that there is grace, even as he invites us into the really hard stuff. At the end of the three exchanges Jesus has with Peter and James and John, he says this, “See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”
“See,” Jesus says. “Look now,” he says. “Look there,” he says. “Yes, I know you couldn’t stay with me back there, but stay with me now.” And so I do. And somehow it’s different. Somehow I can keep my eyes open.
This is why we read these hard things, why we tell this awful, beautiful story. This is why we gather here, in this beautiful building, so far from the poisonous gas, but not so far from the bullets. This is why we went from Hosanna to Crucify him! It’s because it’s hard for me to look, because I want to close my eyes. Because I need Jesus to say, “See, it is time” and “Look, I am betrayed.”
We tell this story, this confusing and painful story to be reminded, not only that we need to look, but that we do not need to see it all alone. I need him to call my name and break my heart so that I can wake up and love.
I don’t know what we do about Syria. I don’t know what we do about Chicago. I don’t know what to do about the myriad struggles and griefs contained in this very space. Not doing is not an option.
But to do, I need first to look. I need Jesus to wake me from my escape of sleep and to say, “The time is now. See. Let us be going.”