Raising Our Voices
Genesis 21:8-21Romans 6:1-11
Do you pray? How often? What is it that you pray for? If not, why not? Is it the words (or lack thereof), the "audacity" of "bothering" God with "petty" requests?
Many of us are probably like the man who flew in an airplane for the first time. He was nervous on the cross-country trip. But sitting by the window, he grew more anxious as he saw flame shooting out of one of the engines. The plane began to hiccup and bump. And so, desperate as he was to land safely, he turned to the deity at hand and said, "O Lord, I know I'm not the best person, but if we make it through this flight, I will give you half of everything I own!" The plane leveled out and the rest of the flight was just as smooth as could be.
As the passengers got off the plane, a preacher came up to the man and said, "I heard what you said, my friend, that you're going to give half of everything you own to the Lord! And you know, you're going to start right now!" The man replied, "No, I made a better deal. I told the Lord that if I ever got on another plane, he could have it all."
Are we prayer bargain hunters? Do we try to make deals, prefacing our prayer at that time of desperation - be it need or want - with all the caveats about how we mean to pray more often or give more or attend more or be a better person? And do we finally go to prayer only as a means of last resort, when that engine is on fire and we feel the steady ground beneath us shake?
Perhaps we see ourselves in that prayer of Hagar, that cry she raises up in the wilderness.
The story of Abraham and Sarah has taken many turns thus far. They have left the land of Haran, leaving behind what they know for the unknown, for the promise of plenty and offspring. And so far, they are still childless. Assuming this to be some kind of test, Abraham and Sarah decide that he should bear a child by Hagar, Sarah's servant. Ishmael is Abraham's first-born child. And he is raised in the household. But this was not what God had intended. Despite the absurdity of it all, God still intends that Sarah herself will bear a child. She does, and Isaac is born.
By the time our lesson picks up, Isaac and Ishmael are both being raised in Abraham's household. The story hear translates that they are playing together, but the better translation is that they are laughing together. Sarah grows jealous; perhaps for her son, perhaps because of Hagar's continued presence. She demands that Abraham send them away. Abraham, rightly so, is concerned. He loves his son Ishmael and desires his well-being. It is only at God's intevention, as Abraham and God speak, that Abraham understands that this is all OK. Ishmael is going to be fine. God will provide for his future and all will be well. So Abraham sends them away with a few days provision out into the desert.
It is there that the story takes its dramatic turn. We can imagine Hagar's pain, out of food and ready to give up. She sends Ishmael away so that she won't see his agony and suffering. It is then that she cries out. She raises her voice and weeps. God hears the weeping - the text says it is Ishmael's cry that God hears, but at that moment, the cries of mother and child are really one and the same. God opens her eyes (note that God doesn't make a well out of nothing; it was simply that she could't see what was already there). They make it through the wilderness, and as the lesson leaves off, Ishmael thrives.
Mother and child raise their voices. God hears. God provides.
Are we willing to believe something like this? That all that is needed for us to thrive, even and especially in the middle of the wilderness, is simply to raise our voices, to have our cries ring out?
Since Pentecost, we have been looking at the theme of Stewardship: not only in that narrow sense that we Presbyterians usually mean, which is the question of how are we gonna pay for all of our ministries; but in that broader sense of how is it that we act as good stewards, caretakers of all that God has entrusted to us. We will continue that conversation as we move outdoors in two weeks for our July services, and as is fitting, we will take a closer look at the question of environmental stewardship. Thus far, we have looked at our finances, our buildings, our ministries, and how is it that we have been entrusted. We have explored the question of trust, like Abraham leaving behind everything. We have looked at surprise, as Sarah and Abraham encounter God's absurd promise of a child in their old age. Today, we look at prayer.
First, a straightforward question. What is prayer? Is it eloquent words spoken aloud, the leader, the pastor, taking the hopes and fears of the gathered into poetic words that can somehow be appropriate to address to God? Is it theological integrity, where every item needs to fit into a larger worldview and an appropriate understanding of God, the kind of thing that only time and wisdom and education and experience can grant? Is it simply a checklist for God, ticking off the things we want or need (and not really sure about the difference) as though we were hunting through the catalog at Christmas time? Is it a practice, something we engage in regularly, on a daily, weekly, or committed basis? Or is it something that we turn to only at the most desperate of times, our Hagar-in-the-wilderness moments of fear and agony?
I want to suggest something rather straightforward this morning. Prayer, whatever we might think of it, is simply conversation with God. That's it. The moment where Abraham is distressed, that was prayer. When Hagar and Ishmael cry out, that was prayer. There's no need for eloquence or theological integrity. Simply speaking the desires and groans of your heart, or even trusting that the groans are enough, that is prayer. And for a faith that proclaims boldly that we are so close to God that we share in death and resurrection with Jesus Christ, that kind of intimacy is one that ought to bring us into regular conversation, prayer, with the one who washes us clean and welcomes us and sustains us, even in the middle of the wilderness.
I want to share a story of prayer with you.
Joy Fisher is a friend of mine. She serves as pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church in Decatur. It is a struggling little church which has missed several generations of transition in the neighborhood. The congregation is elderly and mostly white. The neighborhood is mostly African-American. In Joy's time there, and due in many ways to her leadership, the church has gone from fantasizing about how to recapture the "glory days" to embracing the reality that it it may be time to admit that this church is dying; and in doing so, to proclaim that promise in Paul we heard this morning: that in its death, it might live again. The Session of Midway has come to the realization that it is time to discern to whom the church should be handed off. Joy has been asking her members to pray through it all. She has asked them, as they walk by empty pews on Sunday mornings, to lay a hand on it, and ask that it might be full. As they walk by the baptismal font, to pause for a moment and pray that others might come to feel the cleansing of its waters. Prayer has undergirded all that has happened at Midway Presbyterian. And yet, for years, it has been the slow decline of status quo which has been its mark.
It was in the midst of all this that Joy had a dream one night. She was at the pulpit, preaching to her congregation of a couple dozen, the pews far outnumbering the attendance, as was usual for a Sunday morning. At that moment, a man put his hand on her shoulder, and said, "It's time for you to sit down." She turned around to see a male and female pastor sharing the chancel with her, both of them dark-skinned. African-American, she assumed. She went down to the communion table, knelt, and wept; and when she turned around, the sanctuary was filled: old and young, white, black, brown, "It looked like heaven," she said.
It was a vivid dream; and Joy, being the faithful Christian she is, knowing the role that dreams play throughout Scripture, knew it was a vision. She began to pray for those co-pastors she saw in the dream. Not long after, a Kenyan man stopped by the church. He and a Somali man had begun a ministry of outreach to the nearby Clarkston apartments, one of the largest immigrant communities in Atlanta. They needed a place for their community to worship. They met and prayed together. A few Sundays ago, the plan was for the community to begin worshiping at Midway at a separate service; for a variety of reasons, they were unable to do so, so suddenly the congregation tripled in size. Joy found herself preaching to that sanctuary she had seen in her dream.
The ministry had a bus, too, since most of the people in Clarkston do not own cars. This was vital to bring people to and from the church. The bus driver quit, so Joy added "bus driver" to the prayer list. Within days, they had not only one, but two, one of them a PhD student who had moved to Clarkston in order to do ministry with the immigrant community there. In these conversations with God, there has been answer. There has been provision. They have raised their voices, and God has heard.
Think about that story in connection with our Genesis passage. This church, much like Hagar cast into the wilderness, has been despairing about its future. It has wanted to return to the household, that Ishmael might grow up there in the splendor and warmth of it all. But God had intended a different future. And as soon as they raised their voices in earnest prayer, albeit desperate prayer, God opened their eyes to the deep well that was there all the time.
But also consider the residents of Clarkston apartments. Many of them come from uncertain political climates, many of them are refugees who have been resettled here due to the simple fact that they will not be likely to return home any time in the near future. They are poor. They are hungry. And here come two pastors, a Kenyan and a Somali, showing up with bags of free bread and a simple word about Christ's love. For these folks, the story of Hagar rings true not only in a spiritual sense of doubt and fear, but in a primal, physical sense of despair, of desperation, of hunger, of thirst. And in the wilderness of Clarkston, so far from what they know as home, God has heard their cries and has brought them the possibility of a new future and of new relationships.
Are we so bold? Do we believe that we might be audacious enough to raise our voices in prayer, to speak with God and to listen to God's nudge? What is your prayer? What are your hopes, your desires? What is it that you fear? What gives you anxiety? What are the changes that face you right now, the uncertainties, the ways that you are leaving behind a home you knew for an unknown place, whether that be literal or symbolic?
What are your prayers for OPC? Do we pray for growth, for baptism, for pews to be full that others might be able to experience what it is that brings us here each and every Sunday? Would we be so bold as to pray for something as seemingly crass as money, that we could meet budget and pay for all of these ministries to which we are convinced God is calling us? Will our cries mean that God will simply open our eyes so that we can see the deep wells that are right there in front of us?
What about our community? When we drive past empty houses, new construction, empty lots, do we dare to stop for a moment, or even to pray briefly that these folks would come to know that close relationship that God desires for each of us, that they would come through our doors - and not just ours, but the doors of communities where God is proclaimed and hope is known and eyes and hearts are opened?
Do we pray for our world, that wars would end, that the hungry be fed, that justice and mercy rule the day?
Do we dare? And what will we do when God answers?