The Rules of Prayer: Showing Up

A sermon preached at the Congregational Church of Grafton UCC on November 20, 2016

Jeremiah 23:1-6 “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!”, says the Lord.

Luke 23:33-43 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding [Jesus] and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God…?”

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

The Wednesday after the election, two male students from Babson College drove through the Wellesley College campus waving a Trump flag, and yelling racially offensive taunts at African-American students.

Last Monday, a Natick man reported to the Boston Globe that he’s received threatening letters demanding that he not bring black people to his home. “We have reclaimed our country by selecting Trump and you are now messing up everything. Natick has zero tolerance for black people,” said warning note #1, and then warning note #2. Police are investigating.

It’d be easy to dismiss these stories as the loser fantasies of those who lost the election, save that there is a video on YouTube of the two Babson men gloating about being barred from the Wellesley campus, and there are published photos of the letters. And, in both cases, the police are taking the incidents seriously.

But here’s a third story, this time about someone from our neck of the woods: Last week, Toni DiPina, pastor of the Rockdale UCC church in Northbridge just south of here, walked into a restaurant in Lincoln NH with her daughter and grandson, looking for a meal. They were told to wait for a table; meanwhile others who came in after them, were seated immediately. Toni and her family waited, and waited, and waited, for more than 20 minutes. There were tables open, but none for them. When she complained, the waitress just rolled her eyes and blew her off. Oh yes, Toni is black.

And this one, from a black woman who lives in Portland, Maine – she’s describing a conversation she had last week with a stranger, a white woman, who walked up to her as they both stood on Fore Street and asked:

“’. . . what was this place?’ I assumed she meant the establishment we were standing in front of, so I said it looks like a bar. Then she pointed her gaze at me and asked me where was I from? From there she proceeded to ask me where I lived? At that point, I realized that I was having a potentially racialized encounter and her next question confirmed it. She asked me where did the Blacks (her exact words) live in Maine because there was no ghetto here. She got louder as she repeated herself at which point the white man I had been with said, I think that is enough, these questions are not appropriate. She asked one final question, what would I do if she got aggressive with me? I told her this exchange is over and slowly backed away from her.

There’s been a lot in the news over the past 10 days about incidents such as these: threats, aggressive actions, refusal to serve, and so on. We’d like to think these are aberrant behaviors, the results of just one or two people who haven’t bought into the idea that “all men & women are created equal”.

But when the stories are reported in the paper or on TV, the comments show that those incidents not unusual, that there’s plenty of support for the miscreants.

“Boys will be boys,” says one writer; “more PC insanity,” writes another. It was no big thing, or they made it up, or I don’t believe the photo, or the story. The thing is, the victims don’t think the actions were funny, or innocuous.

And then there are the responses the people themselves receive, on Facebook, or via email or snail mail. The nice responses call them liars, and it goes from there to words I cannot say here in this room, and including threats on their lives. People are frightened.


All this month, I’ve been talking about prayer, encouraging us to use it as a way to get beyond the anger and hatred which builds walls and destroys community. That’s why we’ve been aiming to pray for our enemies on a daily basis. I know that’s hard; I’ve had to do it myself, and I don’t dismiss the difficulty.

However, the simple statement before God that we want to pray for our enemies, or that we want to want to pray… is the only way we can begin to allow the bile of anger to drain away from our hearts. If, this month, you have not found it easy, or possible, to pray for another, I hope you will at least find it possible to pray that you might be able to do that, and perhaps spend some time meditating on God’s trustworthy forgiveness.

Today, however, I want to point out that prayer is much more than words uttered in the privacy of our homes, or recited together here in church. Prayer is also action. Prayer is action when we see before us injustice, or pain, or anger and turn towards the hurt, not away. It doesn’t have to be big, or fancy, or pre-planned, or dangerous – it just has to be action.

The first step in action is paying attention to what’s going on. It’s way too easy to just take a glance and think we know what’s really going on, or take Facebook’s word for what is true and what is false. It’s something like the photo (by Michael Blanchard) that’s on today’s bulletin. If you look at it quickly what you see is the prow of the MV Island Home, the water of Vineyard Haven harbor, land and a huge moon, and you might think it’s a picture of the boat heading from right to left.

But if you take the time to look at the photo carefully, you’ll see a quiet wake “in front of” the boat, and that observation turns the picture right around. When you research the Island Home, you’ll discover it travels from Woods Hole to the Vineyard and that it appears to be double-ended. When you look for other pictures of the harbors, you’ll quickly realize that the lighthouse barely visible is East Chop, on the Vineyard. Now you’ll know the Island Home isn’t sailing from right to left, but from left to right. It’s not leaving the harbor; it’s arriving. . This won’t be your guess; it’s knowledge, not opinion. Studying the whole picture, knowing what we’re dealing with is a key step in active prayer.

Last winter, I went into Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston to visit a parishioner. I found myself at the main visitor’s desk, waiting in line while the harried clerk tried to help a wheelchair-bound woman who had missed her appointment because the transport van had been late.

The patient was very old, accompanied by a grandson who’d taken the day off work to be with her, and it turned out there was no way her appointment could be re-scheduled. Standing there, watching & listening, I realized I was in the middle of a prayer. That harried clerk did everything she could, phoned different people, pled for an appointment for that day, and even though she failed in her attempt it was, none the less, prayer in action.

We pray as a way to prepare ourselves for action – we pray to teach ourselves what action should look like, what the world should be. The words we say when we pray – here or at home – are a training program for life.

Prayer is not first of all about sharing ourselves with an eternally-approving God, but a way of molding our souls, our selves, into people of faith-filled action. “The goal of prayer is the forming and shaping of human character.”

Prayer, properly understood, is intended to pull us out of our own “centered on me, my & mine” mindset, and open us up to the fears and anxieties of the world around us.

The clerk was praying when she worked so hard for that patient. We pray when we stand with those who are being harassed, threatened or dismissed right now. Prayer is not just about words, but solid prayer results in concrete action.

Toni DiPina posted the story of what happened to her and her family on Facebook, and she was surrounded by a community of prayer and support. They helped her achieve some resolution with the manager of the restaurant and made it clear she wasn’t alone in the struggle.

This is Thanksgiving week – on Thursday, we will gather in homes across the nation, sharing the foods which mean home to us, watching football, avoiding arguments with cousin Addie who persists in thinking that the 49rs are a better team than the Patriots.

On that the day remember, too, the conviction of a people who so believed that prayer forms deeds, that they packed up everything they owned, and left behind family, friends, church, to come to a new land. Here they aimed to create a community where everyone was committed to a way of life which integrated prayer and action.

We are the spiritual descendants of those Pilgrims and the later Puritans, the inheritors of their beliefs in the value of every life, and in individual connection to God. Prayer taught those Pilgrims and Puritans that all people matter.

We join them as people of their prayer, the prayer that everyone is welcome, that God loves us all, and not just a prayer in words, but prayer in deeds.

I don’t know what sorts of situations we’ll find ourselves in over the days to come, but it’s pretty clear that there are people out there who think it’s ok to attack gay people, to dismiss people of color, to put down women, to dismiss the idea of equality and justice for all. It’s pretty clear that if we keep our eyes open we’ll have plenty of opportunities to match our words with our deeds.

  • We will stand up for those who are put down.
  • We will speak up for those who are silenced.
  • We will show up for those who think they are alone.

We will be the people who let their prayers guide their deeds, and who use their lives to show glory to God.


© 2016, Virginia H. Child