A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on May 22, 2022
During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
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.
On Tuesday of this past week, President Biden went to Buffalo, New York.
We know why he went.
He went to Buffalo for the same reason President Obama went to Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston SC.
He went to Buffalo because an impressionable kid who had spent way too much time listening to hate talk on television, decided it was his job to kill Black people.
The kid planned his trip, chose to go to this city, this store, because he knew it to in an area with a lot of African-American people. He made a recon trip to check out how the store was laid out, to maximize the number of people he would kill. He identified two other areas in Buffalo – he’d intended to go to each of them and kill more people, more Black people.
That kid made plans, and when it was time drove three and a half hours from his home in Conklin NY to the big city of Buffalo, just to kill people.
We can blame the kid. We could blame his parents. We could criticize the law enforcement people who knew the kid had problems. For that matter, we could blame the problems the kid had, but that’s not going to cut it, not anymore.
When President Biden stood in Buffalo and said that white supremacy was a poison, he was right. And it’s white supremacy that I blame for the deaths of those people, for the deaths of immigrants, and Blacks, for the murder of Jews in Pittsburgh, for the deaths of people in a Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in California on Sunday afternoon.
The “replacement theory” this kid had been reading about, hearing on social media, and who knows what else, suggests that white people in our country are being “replaced” by people of color. That’s the theory behind hating immigrants. That’s why keeping people of color out of the US is important. Killing people of color re-balances the races. These people believe in “whites first, whites only” in much the same way George Wallace used to say “segregation now, segregation forever” – until he got really saved and changed his tune.
Folks who believe this poison think that the only people who should be here are 100% white, 100% Christian people – and by Christian, they don’t actually mean Christians. They mean people who will use the name, but who don’t need to follow Jesus. They mean people who aren’t anything else – not Jews, not Muslims, not Sikh, not anything else. Christians by culture, but not by faith. Those people are evil and the doctrines they teach are poison to our land.
This is why the lessons of Jesus are so essential. Jesus teaches us, and the parts of Acts we’re reading in this season remind us, that there is no such thing as “replacement theory”. We can’t be replaced, because we are all one family. Everyone is welcome at God’s table; everyone is a member of God’s family.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that what we teach here is just something to fill in the time on Sunday mornings. There isn’t a member of this church who doesn’t know how pleasant it would be to sit in peace and just read a Sunday paper, or go for a hike, or go fishing on a Sunday morning … and sometimes we do all those things.
But, most Sundays, between 10 and 11 we gather here to remind ourselves that though we live in a world filled with poisonous ideas and hate-filled people, that is not the end of things. It doesn’t have to be that way, and we are called to fight against it. We come here to hear the story one more time, to refresh our energy, to be a community, to confront evil wherever it shows up, even if it’s in our own hearts.
Today’s story is another of the many stories in Acts about breaking barriers. This time, it’s the story of how Paul and his companions came to intentionally move from Asia to Europe. If they’d never made that trip, we Europeans might still be without the knowledge of the way of Jesus.
Let’s be clear; that wouldn’t have been better – the religious practices of the times before Jesus in northern Europe were sometimes very unpleasant, and could include, did include, human sacrifice. So I, for one, am very happy that my ancestors heard about Jesus, heard because Paul travelled to Greece to tell the story.
In the latter part of this reading, a part we didn’t read today, we learn that one of the first converts Paul and his companions make in Europe is Lydia, a businesswoman; her example empowers women in a new way. The trip from Turkey to Greece changed the world.
It happened because Paul prayed. It was prayer which changed his plans. It was prayer that changed our world.
While I’m sure Paul prayed for guidance, I’m going to suggest today that the prayer which led to his journey didn’t begin with an impassioned call to God to give direction. That’s one kind of prayer, but it’s not the only kind. I believe Paul was also immersed in another kind of prayer, the kind of prayer which provides a framework for our lives.
Petitionary prayer, the kind of prayer we usually experience as joys and concerns, is always offered in response to a need expressed or a joy experienced. It is one of the ways we speak to God.
Formative prayer, however, is one of the ways God speaks with us.
I think it was formative prayer that was the kind of prayer which prepared Paul to hear the call of God, to recognize the vision of the man in Macedonia, asking “come over and help us”.
At its most basic, formative prayer is based on a commitment to listen to God’s word as chosen by some one or something other than ourselves. It might be grounded in a commitment to say the Lord’s Prayer every morning, so that prayer might provide a pattern for the day.
It might be found in faithful reading of a magazine like The Upper Room, or the use of a prayer book, or the reading of devotional book. The person who decides to read a chapter a day of the Bible is doing the same thing.
There are thousands of “right ways” to tune into this kind of spiritual leadership. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Sometimes we read a chapter a day from a book. There are devotional books of daily readings, some still in print after a hundred or more years. There are daily prayer books, with full-blown prayer services for morning, noon and night.
The essence of this kind of prayer is that we follow someone else’s lead in choosing what to read, study or pray about. It is not about what feels right to me, but the courage to listen to someone else, giving authority to someone outside our own lives.
Paul founded his faith in that kind of daily, repetitive, openness to hearing God’s will for him. It drew him out of the land of his birth, the land where his faith was known, into a new place. His practice of listening for God’s voice opened him to God’s word, gave him vision, courage and strength.
EunYoung Choi, a current Yale Divinity School student , wrote in the most recent, on-line, issue of the magazine Reflections, “I believe prayer is a force of resistance that raises hope by naming injustice and suffering. Prayer is not a passive act that merely wishes for dramatic change and breakthrough, but is a stronghold that gathers hearts and instills wonder.”
In a world filled with the poison of hatred, we need that kind of strength. We need that kind of regular call to move beyond our own comfort levels, we need that constant reminder of who we are and what we’re called to.
The prayer which forms us is important. It focuses us, helps strengthen our resolve, clarifies our purpose. It is a central part of how we stand up to that evil we all see in this world. It counteracts the hatred which is everywhere these days. It is absolutely foundational.
Our world is filled with poison; let us in our prayers listen to God’s preparation to be people of peace.
© 2022, Virginia H. Child