Friday, May 22, 2009

Sermonizing, a little bit

The annual conference meeting of the Indiana Area United Methodist Church is taking place in June. Each year, they invite laity from around the conference to develop and submit sermon manuscripts based around a certain theme. I think I'm entering this year -- the theme is "Disciples Transforming the World Through Prayer." It's due tomorrow, so I'm hustling to get it done, but here's a preview of a draft in progress. (If you have any feedback, make it quick, since it has to be postmarked by May 23! Otherwise, just tell me how great you think it is...)


Disciples Transforming The World -- And Being Transformed Themselves -- Through Prayer

"Take this most seriously: A yes on earth is a yes in heaven; a no on earth is a no in heaven. What you say to one another is eternal. I mean this. When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action. And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I'll be there."
Matthew 18:18-20 (MSG)
According to God’s plan, everywhere and all the time, we disciples, together, are transforming the world -- and being transformed ourselves -- through God’s great gift of prayer.

When Jesus gathered the disciples together to speak to them about what it means to be bound to God on earth and in heaven, he reinforced for us what happens every time we gather together in God’s name. The twelve original followers received from Jesus a vivid reminder of the power of their very coming together. Today -- 2,000 years later -- we still need that reminder of God’s great hope for us and of God’s deep desire to support us, just as we support each other in ministries of love, compassion, and service.

We Christians are transforming the world all the time, and prayer is a vital component of that transformation. Through world missions, community ministries, and caring outreach, millions of disciples every day are making a positive difference around the world and in our own backyard. Our mission teams travel halfway around the world or right down the street to feed the hungry and house the homeless and heal the sick, all the time proclaiming the word of God in word and in deed -- often, in both word and deed. Every hour of every day, Christians are working tirelessly to make the world a better place, one bowl of soup at a time, one brick at a time, one vaccination at a time, one mosquito net at a time. And every day here at home, in our own congregations, our Stephen Ministers, funeral hostesses, support groups, small group leaders and members show loving support to the grieving, the dying, the depressed, the unemployed, and others who need to know God’s love.

Though these acts of service are the real, physical manifestation of God’s love, the even deeper impact is made through the prayers shared among the everyday ministers who are showing God’s love, and between those servants and the ones they serve. And often we disciples are the ones who end up transformed through these prayers.

On a recent mission trip to Sierra Leone, I witnessed firsthand the power of prayer and its impact on those we serve and its impact on us as servants. The team had traveled to a small, upcountry town, to visit a school and the attached clinic. While the doctors and nurses were seeing patients, a harried father carried in his young daughter, who was showing symptoms of malaria. As one of our team’s doctors was examining her, he realized that her heart had stopped beating; in just a few brief minutes, this beautiful child of God had gone to eternal life. Just as quickly as she was brought in, she was taken away, as the family had specific funeral customs and traditions to honor, and the team was left to pray for her, her family, and all the people of Sierra Leone, for whom malaria is an unfortunate -- and preventable -- reality.

While this tragedy was unfolding in the clinic, I was visiting with students at the school we had traveled upcountry to see. I spoke with 20 students, and when I asked them what line of work they wanted to pursue, almost all of them said they wanted to be doctors and nurses. When I asked them why, they told me that they knew their country needed healing. In the face of rampant medical concerns in a country recovering from civil war, these young people understood the importance of service and community -- of coming together in God’s name, to be pathways for God’s healing light. That evening, I prayed for those students and their hopes for the future, that they might have the opportunity to live as beacons of God's love, whether as doctors and nurses or as caring and cared-for children of God, in any profession.

The next day, we attended a ceremony to dedicate a building that our congregations had helped to fund. As our team leader was speaking, she quoted Dr. Chuck Dietzen of the Indianapolis-based Timmy Foundation, who often says, “We are not all born to be doctors and nurses, but we can all be healers.” This, of course, rang especially true for me because so many of the students I had spoken with the day before had expressed interest in becoming doctors and nurses, but the realities of the Sierra Leonean education system may or may not allow those dreams to be realized.

And as I glanced to my left, I saw a young man, probably 14 or 15 years old, writing intently in his notebook. I looked closer and saw that he was writing down our team leader’s words: “We are not all born to be doctors and nurses, but we can all be healers.” He understood the importance of those words, and his commitment to them reinforced for me what our trip was about -- our African friends want to work hard and they just need a little help, which we can provide in many forms. They need our presence and our service; they need some funds; and, perhaps most importantly, they need our prayers. Our African brothers and sisters cry out for our prayers most of all -- as we are praying for them, they know they are on our minds and in our hearts. And as we ask God to bless them, we are also transformed, made more aware of our own blessings and driven even more to tell their stories. Our very prayers make a difference to them and to us, laying the foundation for the transformation of individual lives and the transformation of the world.

But we don’t have to travel across the ocean to find folks in need of prayer and God’s restorative love. In March, a number of servants from congregations across central Indiana volunteered for an event called Indy Homeless Connect, a resource fair for almost 1,000 homeless people in Indianapolis. This year, in addition to the traditional services of job and housing assistance, medical care, haircuts, and food service, the event’s organizers established a Spiritual Garden, a quiet space for spiritual support and prayer time. Led by Castleton UMC, Stephen Ministers from United Methodist churches across central Indiana staffed the Spiritual Garden for hours, meeting with our homeless neighbors, talking with them, listening to them, and praying with them. As I served lunch to a few hundred neighbors, I watched across the Convention Center floor and saw my fellow Stephen Minister friends sharing hugs, smiles, tears, and – most important – prayers with our homeless neighbors. At the end of the day, many of us reflected on what an honor it was for us to serve in this way. It was a joy to share prayer with our brothers and sisters in Christ. In fact, we found that the experience was as transformational for us as it was for those whom we were there to serve.

In the scripture, Jesus talked to the disciples about what happens when they come together in the name of God, and we know those words are just as true for us today. Mission work teams who travel around the world and those who serve around the block come together in God’s name to do God’s work among God’s people. In the very act of committing to serve and “making a prayer of it,” we invite God to go into action. And just as important as the individuals who travel to Sierra Leone, or India, or Honduras, or downtown Indianapolis, are the people at home who are praying on behalf of the teams’ safety, health, and effective ministry. These prayer partners at home transform the world by ensuring that everyday life can continue while other servants head out to be the hands and feet of Jesus; without the prayer support of husbands and wives, children and grandchildren, co-workers and co-worshipers, this type of servant ministry would not be possible.

Jesus tells us that our coming together in service, in fellowship, and of course in worship, honors God’s plan for us. And God transforms us and equips us to transform the world when we join together in prayer.

The act of prayer is an act of courageous conversation. Talking to God and listening to God is an exchange, in which we give our concerns and our joys and our thanks to God, while receiving God’s love, support, and comfort. But we seldom acknowledge the courage that prayer requires of us. When we speak with God and when we listen to God -- when we really open ourselves up to God’s word -- often the result is not what we expected. God may give us a command or a call, or sometimes a nudge or a whisper.

Quite literally, God transforms the world through us, and our prayer lives serve as the link between us and God. Whether we realize it our not, God is guiding us, all the time, to opportunities to do good works. In very real ways, we are the hands of Jesus and the feet of Jesus and the hammers and nails of Jesus and the pots and pans of Jesus. We are the ears of Jesus and the tears of Jesus, the loving words of Jesus, the tender hugs of Jesus. We are the dollars and cents of Jesus, the plows and seeds and fertilizer of Jesus. Every time we pray as Jesus taught us, we’re praying for -- and about -- a world transformed by God, where God’s Kingdom is come and God’s will is done on earth as in heaven.

When God acts through us in the world, we become the conduits through which God’s love flows. And the great thing is that, as God’s love flows through us to others, some of it rubs off on us. When we pray and God leads us to transformational acts, it is we who are transformed. Mother Teresa described herself as a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world. As we little pencils are used in big and small ways to write in the service of God, we leave a part of ourselves in the world, and we pencils are ourselves transformed by the presence of the Writer.

The fact is that there’s a lot going on in the world that gets in the way of us humans showing love to each other. But that’s why God put so many of us here right now – so that we can band together as billions of little mirrors reflecting God’s love to each other and outshining the doubt and violence and desperation and hatred that choke us as individuals and as a local, national, and global community. When we pray together, as Jesus encourages us, those mirrors become even larger and more focused, empowering us to shine God’s love and make a larger and larger impact on individuals and, ultimately, the world. The act of praying together creates a partnership between us and God -- a partnership that can only be for the good of the world.

In the scripture, Jesus reminds us: “Take this most seriously…get together, and make a prayer of it.” We make a prayer of it by remembering Jesus’ commandments to love God and love each other. When we do, our God in heaven goes into action. All we must do is simply say a prayer together or do a prayer together or be a prayer together, and God goes into action!

And when two or three of us are together because of Jesus, he’ll be there. Jesus is with us when we gather together in worship, in service, in fellowship, and in prayer. Our role is to be intentional about uniting in partnership together with each other and uniting in partnership together with God. When we claim God as our partner, in thoughts and in words, in dreams and in deeds -- that is, when we engage in the courageous conversation that is prayer -- God goes into action. And by God’s action through us, the world is transformed -- just as we, together, are transformed.


Anonymous said...

Not sure if it'll help you since it's post mark by today, But it has a slight "Christians are better" slant. Although, for your audience, it'll work, but I wouldn't take to practicing that all the time.

Good luck. All around I like the message though!

Scott S. Semester said...

Ooh, thanks, Jill! That's important feedback. And since I am a to-the-deadline worker, there's time for edits!

Clifton said...

Scott, I hope you got a few loud "Amens" from those assembled Methodists. When I was your age I fancied myself a hotshot Methodist lay preacher, but I gotta say your sermon was lots better than the silly stuff I produced. It'll be clear that I'm old and out of touch with current church thinking when I respectfully disagree with your friend revizzy and say I hope you didn't water yours down to make it less Christian and more diverse, inclusive,multicurltural interfaithy and all that contemporary jargon. I don't know if Jesus watches us from wherever He is, but maybe He's saying, "Why are you guys who claim to be my followers afraid to mention my name?"