Sermons at Union Congregational Church
Preached by The Reverend Gail L. Miller, Pastor
February 18, 2018 First Sunday in Lent
On “Thoughts and Prayers”
Last fall, I preached a sermon series on Christian clichés, and occasionally one of you would suggest another cliché to add to the list. One of those was “Thoughts and Prayers,” suggested right after the Las Vegas shooting on Oct. 1, just 4 months ago. And given the school shooting in Parkland, Florida this week, this Sunday seemed the appropriate Sunday.
Sadly the phrase “thoughts and prayers” has become a cliché. I used to write “thoughts and prayers ascend” when writing to someone (publicly or privately) in response to bad news shared. No more.
At its best it is a shorthand phrase to convey sympathy and sadness after a tragic event. It’s the three word version of a condolence card, often spoken when there’s not much else that can be said.
At its worst it is a shallow, meaningless proclamation that doesn’t contain much that is thoughtful and is about as far as one can get from prayerful. It gives politicians and public figures something to say that sounds sympathetic.
The backlash on social media against the cliché is having its day now – criticizing “thoughts and prayers” as ineffective in bringing about change, measurable change when it comes to occurrences of violence and other large scale tragedies and natural disasters. (Thoughts and prayers video game!)
So what is a faithful Christian response to mass shootings? What should we say? What should we do?
Just because it is a cliché to say “thoughts and prayers” doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think – about those who are suffering: families, friends, teachers, first responders, communities. And by all means we should pray for them.
But how might we think and pray about these things? And is that all?
Well, a Christian approach to any issue begins in the same place – at the beginning. We believe that God created this world and all that is in it – the culmination of which is humanity made in His image and declared not just good, but very good.
God’s very breath is our breath, and every person on our planet – past, present or future – is beloved by Him. This and this alone makes us all equals and imbues all people with worth and value.
Flawed and foolish though we – and others – may be, everyone is always deserving of God’s love. And boy we are flawed – we are insecure and distrustful of even those closest to us. Self-interest and self-preservation is our highest purpose, believing that we’ve got to take care of ourselves and our own tribe first and only. Which has been humanity’s fatal flaw from the get go.
But remember, we – all people – always and everywhere – are nevertheless deserving of God’s love. And God’s desire to get that through our thick heads brought Him to Earth, so that he could walk, in the flesh, beside the very people he was loving. And so in Jesus we have God with skin on – making it so plain:
Make God – and for Christians that means Jesus also – your focus. Follow him yes, but more than that, he is to redefine how we understand everything going on around us.
Two weeks ago I said that Christians are under new management and operating by a different mandate than the rest of the world. Our guiding questions / the way to stay faithful, is to ask these three questions:
are we including everyone?
are we valuing people over all things?
are we caring for others more than ourselves?
This is a faithful Christian response – to the issues of our time and the issues of this week.
Christ’s own choices reflect a selflessness and prioritizing of the neediest people in his time and place. And a damning of the pretentious religious types who were too busy keeping things as they’ve always been to even offer up thoughts and prayers. Parable after parable, sermon after sermon, the message is the same: take care of others, especially those who are suffering and struggling. And you know what? It doesn’t matter HOW they got there – just help them – their needs are more important than yours.
This is how we’re to think, pray, and act – as individuals and as Christ’s body – the church.
And relegating this to a lofty ideal notion without making it real is a cop out. Are we able to do this all the time and without making mistakes along the way? Of course not! And so we’ve been given the Holy Spirit who provides us with strength and courage and hope to go on and to try again when we seem to have reached our limitations. And we’ve been given each other – for encouragement and sharing in the work.
When I consider all this – from creation through Jesus to the sustaining of the Holy Spirit – I come to certain opinions on a variety of topics, including the issues that have arisen again this week, including reasonable restrictions on gun ownership, and policies to keep our children safe.
And you also, if you haven’t already, need to apply a Christ-centered, Biblically-informed, thought process to these issues. In fact I can’t imagine trying to figure out what I think about these tough topics without having a set of principles rooted in the goodness of our loving God’s purposes and desires for His people.
But thoughts are not enough – we need to pray as well. A seminary friend of mine is the pastor at the Newtown Congregational Church in Connecticut. (Matt Crebbin) Last fall as they were approaching the 5 year anniversary of what happened at Sandy Hook, he wrote about prayer and how to pray at times like this.
It’s been nearly five years and I would not have come this far without prayer. If you cannot find any coherent thoughts that you can put together, then pray with “sighs too deep for human words.” Those of us who have been affected by gun violence often cannot find any words in moments like this – so there is lots of sighing and silence…lots of silence. And then out of the silence…pray:
Pray your sorrow, your anger, your hopelessness. Pray your faith and your doubt.
Pray for the murdered, the injured, the traumatized – each one a unique and precious treasure.
Pray for families and communities forever altered.
Pray for individuals and families in other places who in this moment are being re-traumatized.
Pray for all those around our world who are targets of violence because their beauty as a child of God does not fit somebody else’s definition of what is righteous or pure or worthy of sacred care.
Pray for those who will only offer prayers and nothing else. Pray for those who say it is too soon to talk about the solutions and who will always find reasons to avoid the conversation.
Pray for all of us that we might refuse to become further isolated from those with whom we disagree – and choose to live only in theological and political camps that feel safe and reassuring.
Pray for those who think they know all the reasons that things like this happen – and who will soon return to a cocoon of self-righteous certainty.
Pray for those who will become even more captive to the way of fear – and only end up further down the path of death and brokenness.
Pray for shalom…for peace and well being for everyone – including even those who commit unspeakable acts of violence.
Pray…and even as you are praying…commit yourself to be a part of the transformation. And then, prayerfully choose one specific thing that you will do today to reduce gun violence and create just a little more peace on this planet.
Pray…and in your praying become a living and breathing prayer that this broken and grieving world so desperately needs.
Prayer isn’t just a matter of wishing that things would have turned out differently, although that is part of it. Prayer opens us to hear what God is calling us to do in a situation. Prayer grounds us in God’s mission and reminds us that God is active in the world.
The promise that God is at work in spite of the evil of such events empowers us to act beyond what we so often see as the limit. It is God’s will that we are to be compassionate and see the inherent dignity of all people. Prayer moves us beyond ourselves toward God’s promise.
In this way, thoughts and prayers are just the beginning.
If you need a ride to the airport, all the thoughts and prayers in the world won’t get you there, until someone offers to drive you.
Christ’s call on our lives is to think, to pray, and to act… if we ignore any one of these, we’re going to miss the mark.
So do something! Write to your representatives and senators urging them to make our children’s safety their highest priority. Participate in a symbolic gesture such as supporting the student walkouts being planned this spring. Make this issue a priority as you vote in upcoming elections.
Our God is the God of love, the God of creation, and the God that is most clearly seen in the violence-rejecting resurrection of Jesus. That same God is most certainly at work counteracting the evil that’s be done this past Ash Wednesday. And inviting us to join Him in that work: To be the answer to someone else’s prayer, to show real Christ-like love, to show act with judgments and condemnation, but with mercy and grace and love.
May it be so!