‘Thoughts and prayers’ may not be enough…
March 13, 2022
Scripture: Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35
When it comes to a relationship with our living Lord, it is and always has been a partnership, with us as the far lesser, but still critical partner. Knowing that, with our Lord as the one who promised to be there each and every time two or more gather in prayerful purpose…the line in today’s gospel passage that read, ‘See, your house is left to you’, was puzzling to me. It caught my eye as something that didn’t really seem to make much sense. It was uttered by Jesus in the middle of his scolding of the Pharisees who had actually come to inform him that Herod, the puppet–king of the Jews installed by the Romans, was seeking to find him to have him put to death.
Jesus tells them to go back and tell Herod that basically he is not afraid, that he is on a mission, he has work to do, and he will not be thwarted in completing it. From there though he moves on to a more general and quite scathing criticism of the Temple faith and culture overall, and speaks this curious line directly to the Pharisees themselves. But still in all, this line seemed sort of randomly inserted.
Curious, I referenced several other translations and found that there was in fact more than seems obvious from what we see in our own version. Several other translations refer to it as meaning, ‘at this point, your house, your place of feeling gathered together, your communal identity as followers of the faith…is empty and left desolate.’
What a strong statement! Not at all something we think of when imagining how Jesus related to those around him. What at first seemed like a curious phrase and not one I understood, turns out to be a warning, in fact a strong warning to the Pharisees and in fact, to all who had been rejecting Jesus’ message and ministry. He seemed to be telling the Pharisees who had come to him, that unless and until they changed their ways and stopped hindering those under their care from gaining more direct access to the Lord, their lives would ultimately be meaningless, and their faith practice without merit or effect. In other words, their ‘house’ would remain….empty.
So, after realizing that this was what Jesus was actually trying to convey with these words, I began to wonder what they might say if the were directed towards any of us, and if so, what changes might we have to make in order to be sure we were one of those who walked along with Jesus, rather than one who might in some ways be set against his will and purpose.
It occurred to me, that we too might benefit from a realignment of focus concerning our call to truly live so that others might also live fully. That, until we turn to the Lord and acknowledge that the Spirit is calling us to walk a path that is the path of a cross, until we become willing to give freely of our own resources on behalf of others whenever the Spirit asks, we will not be connected to the life or love-force and energy of the Lord. Instead, we will simply be running on our own energy, our own passions, and as our passage from Phillippians cautions us, even on the impulse of ‘our own belly’. In other words, we may be in danger of living in a ‘house’ that is ‘empty’ as well.
And that my friends is no way to help anyone at all. So it seems that we can either wring our hands and feel powerless in the face of the great evil currently raging all across the globe, or we can refuse to let our ‘house remain empty and desolate’, and that, by signing on to do whatever the Holy Spirit asks of us from right where we are.
In truth, the biggest problems, and in fact all problems, must be met first with prayer. All those across the world who are currently suffering so deeply, and not just in Ukraine, need real honest and sincere prayer from each of us. And not just by saying what it seems like is a common default response from so many of our leaders today, by offering to simply keep those who are suffering or who have lost deeply ‘in our thoughts and prayers’, without making a real and personal commitment to actually do that. Without committing to do that in honesty and truth, and not simply just as a quick mention of concern occasionally lifted up to God, we are not really working as partners with our Lord…we are going it, or not really going it as the case may be, all on our own. Rather, with a sincere and serious concerted effort and practice, both individually and as the gathering of the faithful, we must develop a habit of pleading with God for peace and healing for all who are suffering and in need. And prayer must be inclusive, in that we must also remember to pray for the intervention of the Spirit upon the souls of those who are in fact the root cause of the oppression, whoever and wherever they may be.
Last week I was asked why I put a request ‘to pray for the people of Russia’ on our sign out in front of the church. I replied that the Russian people in large part are suffering as well, perhaps for different reasons, but truly suffering nonetheless. For it only takes a few bad actors to inflict misery on a large swath of people. And it seemed that today’s scripture, occurring as it does during the season of Lent, during that time when we are asked to be pensive and reflective of all our Lord Jesus did for us in his final weeks and days on earth, might carry an even stronger and deeper call for us as a result.
Simply and occasionally lifting up a name or a thought to the Lord in a prayer that allows us to feel like we are doing our part, when in fact we are still allowing the distractions of daily life to otherwise sap our energy and fill our waking moments is not enough. We are being asked to do more by the Spirit, andsimply muttering a half-hearted prayer is just not enough. And it is not honoring the extent of the sacrifice that was made for us on Calvary’s cross either. Simply saying that we will keep someone or some concern ‘in our thoughts and prayers’ should never be the end of our engagement or concern, or of our willingness to continue to advocate on behalf of another.
For we must covenant to pray deeply, as well as to let our prayers be coupled with action. If we do not do this for all of the larger issues that are out there, as well as commit to actively reach out and engage problems that are right here on our doorstep and within our reach, if we don’t come together and act on our faith-call in such a way that it makes our words and actions both visible and life-affirming for all who cross our path, then we too will find our ‘house’, our purpose, our reason for even coming here, somewhat empty and feeling hollow. And heaven forbid we ever find ourselves in the place of feeling, ‘we could or should have done more, but just didn’t quite get around to it’.
Jesus told the Pharisees to go back to Herod, and to tell him that he would not be deterred in completing what he had been asked to do…he would not stop sharing his message, and he was not afraid to accept the consequences he knew were awaiting him when he eventually arrived in Jerusalem. And not only was he not afraid, but once again, even here in our passage he sought to spiritually connect with and offer healing to the Pharisees themselves, again trying to show them the error of the practice of their faith.
As he had done so many times previously, he scolded the Pharisees for not accepting his message and more importantly, what that change would insist on asking of them. He told them that they had lost their way, and that their understandings of the faith were so rigidly fixed in place, that there was no room left for new understanding, no space in which a new, deeper, and more inclusive view of God’s love and mercy could take root and grow. But what exactly does a faith practice that is not just a passing offer of ‘thoughts and prayers’ look like? How are we supposed to pray in a way that is ‘honest and truthful’?
For starters, prayer is a conversation with God, an ongoing awareness of the presence of the Spirit in and over our life and a celebration of that presence whenever two or more gather in prayer. It is a willingness to keep one’s eyes, ears, and heart open to any and all of those little nudges from the Holy Spirit that will, if allowed, guide you each day to live such that you are fully a blessing for others. ‘Prayerfully living’, is allowing that conversation with God to carry on throughout your day as the primary internal private discussion, as well as watching as opportunities to imitate the self-giving love of Jesus present themselves before you.
Sincere and honest prayer is also a commitment to make time to lift up and pray as the community of faith each time you gather…lifting up present concerns or joys, as well as larger issues that it seems are otherwise out of reach. I know some often wonder why we should pray for situations that seem so far outside of our own ability to make a difference, situations like the ongoing war and destruction currently over in Europe. After all, what can we do here that truly would make any difference whatsoever?
I was recently at a meeting of members of our community who voiced words of thanks and relief that ‘at least we were living in America’, at least there was an ocean between us and all of the troubles raging across the Atlantic. And I understand that sentiment, for in fact we are physically isolated and seemingly not in harm’s way. However, that brings at least two thoughts to mind. First, there are many who are recent immigrants from those war torn countries among us, some of whom have family or relatives still in danger over there, and who may be in need of our love, compassion, and support.
And second, the very fact that we are not a part of the conflict directly, frees us up to share from our own resources to alleviate the pain and suffering of those who are. As a nation that still values and allows freedom of expression, we also can make our voices heard and our opinions known regarding how Jesus’ commandment to ‘love one another’ needs to be a part of any conversation regarding waging or ending war, or the horrendous oppression of innocent individuals, including of late so many children, and even pregnant or new mothers.
‘Thoughts and prayers’ can be good…but they must be ‘thoughts that lead to prayers that lead to a commitment to action’, if our voice and presence as followers of our Lord is ever going to have the effect the Spirit is surely seeking after. As did Jesus that day, we too must find the courage and the resolve both here and abroad to tell ‘Herod’, that ‘we have work to do, that we are on a mission of mercy, and that we will not be deterred from our course’.
The time for prayerful faith has never been so present or as critical as now. We simply cannot be satisfied with sitting over here safe and feeling thankful that this is not our fight. For there is much work to be done both here and elsewhere. We cannot be deceived into thinking that we have got it all right, and that we have no work to do. For surely as much as Jesus wept over Jerusalem, wishing he had been able to gather her all in his arms, much as a hen gathers in her chicks in order to keep them safe, I am sure the Lord feels much the same when it comes to our own nation and the ways we find to be far less than loving and far less than compassionate towards one another. Truly our Lord weeps over us as much as over anyone else…so yes, we have prayers to lift up and much work to do.
Oh Lord, may our thoughts always lead us to prayer, and may our prayers never fail to spur us to a commitment to take action…for in this way not only are we allowing your Spirit to speak deeply into our lives, but we are truly honoring the sacrifice you made in teaching us the power of the love that is found, in the giving of oneself on behalf of others…