Listen to the sermon from Sunday, May 28, 2017 titled “My Prayer for You” by the Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
A framed copy of an iconic print used to hang in my grandparent’s bedroom in Missouri. It made an impression on me as a child of the importance of prayer in their lives. I thought it was a painting, but it’s actually a photograph by Eric Enstrom from 1918, hand colored by his daughter Rhoda Nyberg in the 1940’s. Titled “Grace,” the colorized print was widely sold in the Midwest.
Interesting backstory… Enstrom paid the subject, Charles Wilden, $5 to pose and relinquish all rights. The man who became the picture of piety, Wilden was a peddler who earned a meager income. The book is not a Bible, but a dictionary, and local stories about Wilden “centered more around drinking and not accomplishing very much.” Well, that’s okay, because for all of us prayer begins with human struggle and need, and not with our piety or perfection.
Today we hear a prayer from “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” for “the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus” (Eph 1:1). In almost every letter Paul includes thanksgiving prayer for the people he’s writing. These are churches he planted, friends he calls by name, brothers and sisters for whom he feels a familial affection.
Many scholars think Ephesians was not actually written by Paul, but by one of his disciples a generation later writing in Paul’s name to summarize Paul’s thought and as an introduction to a collection of Paul’s letters. As such, it widens the scope of this prayer in Ephesians to include all faithful Christians in every church ever since, which of course is implied by its inclusion as scripture in the New Testament.
I am moved by the apostle’s prayers for the friends he writes. A lot of people in this world – even a lot of Christians – literally don’t have a prayer. That is, they don’t actually pray at all, or at least not very often, and when they do it is mainly for themselves, what Reinhold Niebuhr called “lobbying in the Divine court for special favors.” They may pray like chatty children begging for toys, but prayer as a constant conversation with God is simply not part of their daily experience. Consequently, many of them struggle to believe in God and their occasional prayers take more the form of sudden desperate pleas for help.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe God hears those prayers. As Anne Lamott suggests, most of our prayers boil down to “Help!” “Thanks!” or “Wow!” And it’s not just the cognitive content of our prayers, but our visceral emotion God hears, what Paul calls “sighs too deep for words” (NRSV), or as the old King James translation puts it, “groanings which cannot be uttered.” (Rom 8:26).
My theology professor, George Hendry, told us the central biblical assertion that “God is with us” means we should never speak of God as if God were not present. But if we have an abiding God beside, within, and among us, why don’t we speak to God more than we do?
I think love is what turns our prayer focus from selfish wants to the needs of people around us. Ask any new parent about that deep inner desire for their child’s welfare that reaches beyond their sight for help. We pray for the people we love because we so quickly reach the limit of what we can do for them ourselves. We have to pray and trust them into the hands of God.
But I believe those prayers make a difference. I believe just knowing someone is praying for you makes a difference. That’s why it’s so important when you tell somebody you are praying for them actually to pray for them.
Love compels Paul to pray for his friends in churches he has planted. After all, he has planted his life with them! Ephesians sums up those prayers in this beautiful way:
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” (Eph. 1:17-19).
Those three things – hope, blessing, and power – are Paul’s prayer for the church. And as I approach the end of my journey with you, I have the same prayer for you, my beloved friends at University Baptist Church, a prayer compelled by my love and life investment in you.
First, I pray you may know “the hope to which God has called you.” Yes, the world is filled with evil. We are both impacted by and infected with materialistic greed, violent impulses, and hateful discrimination. Our own state legislature and federal congress may dress it in the language of security and goodness and even God, but we read the Bible. We know better.
Human nature is irreparably broken. Nevertheless, we have hope. God is love. And don’t you believe in the end love wins? Does love win? Does love win? And we are on the side of love. In the darkness of this world, the light of God’s love shines through you. Remember the Source of your hope!
Second, I pray you will know “what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.” The materialism of our culture gets us all thinking in terms of scarcity. We never have enough to feel secure. All the while we are rich in the things that matter: family, friendship, faith.
We get into the same scarcity thinking with the church. Yet this church is rich in resources: buildings, land, income. You are rich in heritage, and richer yet in potential. I know you feel small and weak, but you are still larger in active membership than the majority of the churches in the United States. You are larger in impact than the majority of churches your size. You do more to bring faith, hope, and love to marginalized people in our city than you realize. The University Baptist Church has blessed so many people and you are blessed to be part of that. When I think of the privilege I have had to be your pastor these many years, I am filled with gratitude.
In all my years here in every committee meeting we have never felt we had enough and always worried about making our budget, and that has made us careful stewards of our resources. But God has always provided what we needed when we needed it. The One who created the whole earth and everything in it, who owns the cattle on a thousand hills, will provide what you need to accomplish the mission you discern in the days to come. Remember how blessed you are!
Third, I pray you will know “the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe, according to the working of God’s great power.” What is that power? “God put this power to work in Christ,” Ephesians says, “when God raised him from the dead.” The power of the church is resurrection. The power of the church is rebirth. The power of the church is the love of God in Christ risen!
The chair of the search committee that brought me to University Baptist Church told me the church was dying, that I might well be the last pastor the church ever had. That was thirty years ago, and we’re still here! Not because of me, but because God isn’t finished with you yet.
When I think of the saints who have passed through here, the people we’ve baptized, the hungry we’ve fed, the gospel we’ve proclaimed, the children we’ve raised, the souls we’ve trained and sent elsewhere to be church, the heretofore excluded we’ve included in the grace of God, I am amazed at the life-changing resurrection power at work within you.
Of course the church is dying! None of the founders are with us. We are all aging, retiring, and passing through. The church of the thirties is gone. The church of the forties and fifties and sixties is gone. The church everybody over the age of thirty was raised in is gone. And that’s true of every church in our neighborhood, not to mention every church in these United States!
But the church, this church, is also rising again. God is doing something new, and you have the privilege of being co-creators with God in the new church being born. So I pray you will stop worrying about the church dying, and focus on being faithful to the resurrection mission God is giving you now as Christ rises in his church! Trust in the power of Christ risen!
How do you access this hope, this blessing, this resurrection power? By praying! So most of all I am praying you will pray for your church, for each other, for Christ to rise among you. I don’t mean praying for what you want, praying for your vision and your way, but listening to God, listening to God in each other, praying your way together into “the new and improved” University Baptist Church.
Look at your history. UBC has always been courageous, prophetic, early adapters, first timers, pacesetters, leading the way. Why should it be different now? Change is not your enemy. Change is God’s way of providing something even better. Pray your way into it. Find God within it. Let God stretch you to fit the new.
I can’t go there with you. I feel a little bit like Moses who could see the promised land in the distance but had to pass the mantle to the next leader and the next generation who would move into the promised land. But I believe in the God who has made this a great church for all these years. And I believe in you, the peculiar people God has called to be the church – here – now. So beloved, I will be praying that you have a prayer, too, and looking forward to what God’s gonna do among you!
Amen. May we pray?
For all that has been, O God, we say “Thanks!” And to all that will be, we say “Yes!” You are the light in the midst of darkness. You are the plenty in the midst of scarcity. You are the constant in the midst of change.
But you are the change, too. For though you love us as we are, you do not leave us as we are but call us forward to new heights, and new joys on our journey with you.
So give us the wisdom, grant us the grace, to draw close to you in these days and listen for your voice. Lead us to a deeper walk with you in prayer alone and together.
You have met us here and walked with us out there year after year. And you are still with us. We look forward to what you will do next. Help us not to resist change but to embrace it that we might grow beyond our comfort zone and move through the wilderness into the place you promise.
You are a faithful God and we would be faithful to you. So for all that has been, we say “Thanks!” and for all that will be, we say “Yes!” in the name of Christ. Amen.