Monday, January 27, 2014

Sermon, "Seven Habits of Highly Effective Disciples: Prayer," Nehemiah 1:4-11

Sermon 1/26/14
Nehemiah 1:4-11

7 Habits of Highly Effective Disciples: Prayer

            Today we’re continuing in our series on the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Disciples, and this week, we’re focusing in on prayer. Last, we talked about purpose, and I gave you a homework assignment: to think about your life’s purpose, and to actually think about, perhaps even write out, perhaps even share with me your draft purpose statement: My purpose is ____. I very much appreciate that several of you took me quite seriously, and I really enjoyed hearing from you this week, hearing about your hard work and thoughtfulness, reflecting on God’s purpose for you in this world. Don’t worry if you didn’t get to it yet – you still have time, and I’d still love to hear your thoughts.
            We talked about how our purpose in life is like our thesis statement in a paper, and the prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness that we covenant to in our baptismal and membership vows are like the supporting paragraphs of our essay, the ways we show our thesis – our purpose – is true. This week I met with my Doctor of Ministry advisor, and I told her I’d used this metaphor in my sermon, being inspired by the writing I’ve been doing for my project, and she was quite delighted! So this week, we take a look at the first supporting paragraph – prayer. “As members of the body of Christ and in this congregation of The United Methodist Church, we will faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers.” That’s one of the vows we make in this congregation. So our question today is, “How are we participating in the ministries of this church by our prayers?” And more specifically, how is our practice of the ministry of prayer in our own life supporting our purpose – for our own walk with God and as part of the congregation?
We’re blessed to have several prayer-focused ministries here at Liverpool First. We have a prayer team, a prayer chain ministry, a prayer room, a prayer quilt ministry. I have seen these ministries and the ministry of prayer at work in our midst, as faithful servants send out prayer requests via email, as leaders and committee members make sure to open and close each meeting, each choir rehearsal in fact, with prayer, as I deliver a quilt that I watched loving, prayerful hands sew together, as we as parishioners have prayed with Aaron, Laurel and I before worship, as our lay servants have written and shared beautiful prayers, as Brian did today, during our worship time together. All of these are ways in which we can participate in the ministry of the church by our prayers, just as we participate through our personal and corporate prayer, both as a part of worship, and as part of our spiritual walk with Christ. We often say to someone who has shared something challenging or painful that they’re experiencing: “I’ll keep you in my prayers.” I hope we mean it, or that we start meaning it. I hope they’re more than words we say because we don’t know what else to say. And I hope we know that as meaningful as all of our prayers are to God, I hope we realize how praying purposefully, praying for God’s purpose in our lives, our congregation, our world, to be fully realized, that we might help in God’s purposes being fully realized – I hope we realize how powerful are our purposeful prayers to God.      
            That brings us to our scripture reading for today. Our Old Testament Lesson comes from the book of Nehemiah, a book of the Bible you might not be very familiar with. Nehemiah was written in the late 5th century BC, and is a unique book among books of the Old Testament because it is primarily told in the first person point of view. We hear directly from Nehemiah. The events he describe take place after the Israelites had been exiled to Babylon, conquered by the Babylonians, and after the Israelites had finally been allowed to return to Jerusalem. But all is not well, “back to normal,” and Nehemiah returns to oversee the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.
Nehemiah, is the cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes in Susa, the capitol of Persia. Cup-bearers were positions of high status. Because of the constant fear of plots to harm the ruling king, a person had to be considered highly trustworthy to hold the position of cup-bearer. The cup-bearer had to guard against poison or tampering with the drinks served to the king, sometimes even required to taste-test for the king. But this role also brought the cup-bearer a degree of closeness and confidence with the king. Cup-bearers had influence with the king.
Nehemiah, cup-bearer to Artaxerxes, learns that the wall of Jerusalem had been destroyed. As our text opens, we find him praying to God after receiving the news. He prays that God will give him strength and success as he asks Artaxerxes to let him return to Jerusalem to oversee the rebuilding of the walls. After our text for today, the king agree, and Nehemiah is appointed governor of Judah. He rebuilds the walls, he wards of enemies, and he rebuilds the community to conform again with the law of Moses, making many reforms, including reforms to combat oppression of the poor, like cancelling past debts and mortgages. He meets with a lot of opposition, especially from the Jewish nobles, but he eventually prevails.
But our focus today is specifically on Nehemiah’s prayer. Before any of the events unfold, right in the first chapter of Nehemiah, we read his prayer, his starting point, before he begins to carry out what he believes is God’s purpose for him. Nehemiah’s prayer is beautiful and flowing, but we shouldn’t be put off by the beauty of his words. The heart of the prayer is always what matters to God, just as a child’s “I’m sorry” or “I love you” is as powerful to a parent as an adult child’s more eloquent communication. Essentially, what Nehemiah says is this: “God, you are always faithful. I’ve screwed up, my family and my people have screwed up, and we see the consequences, the separation we’ve experienced from you because we’ve failed to follow you. But we’re gonna try again.  You’re always faithful. So please be with us and help me communicate my plan to my king.” Nehemiah has a sense of what he thinks God is asking him to do. He asks God for strength to get it done, for God to help him convince the king who will have to allow Nehemiah’s journey. He admits that without God, he screws up. And he remembers God’s faithfulness, God’s promises, and places his trust in that faithfulness, those promises.
            Are you praying for God’s purpose to be fulfilled in your life? In the life of this community of faith? I think we have two fears when it comes to prayer. The first, more obvious fear is that God won’t hear us, won’t listen, won’t answer – that our prayer won’t “work.” Won’t accomplish what we want it to. That’s certainly something for us to talk about. But today I want us to think about what I think is probably the more surprising of our fears. I think we’re secretly afraid that our prayers will work sometimes, exactly as we say we want them to. Do you remember back when Pastor Aaron challenged us to pray for 30 days for our enemy, that God would bless them? My heart, I admit, was filled with a bit of dread. Because I knew that if I prayed for God to bless my enemy, God would! I wasn’t sure I really wanted what I was praying for. Wasn’t sure I was ready to let go of grudges and hard feelings.
            When it comes to our life’s purpose, our congregation’s purpose, what if we pray for God to guide us and transform us and lead us and make us into faithful, devoted disciples – and God listens!? We have to prepare ourselves for God to give us exactly what we pray for. And sometimes, friends, I think we pray for things that we don’t really want to happen. We pray for God to guide – but we don’t really want to be led anywhere other than right we are. We pray for strength to follow Jesus, but we’re not really that excited to go down the path he’s going down. We pray for God to transform us, but we secretly hope that our transformed selves are pretty much like our current selves.
            We get pretty worked up about prayer sometimes. We worry that we’re not doing it right, that our words aren’t the right ones, somehow, to convince God to do what we ask. But I think we just need to keep one phrase in mind when we pray: Say what you mean, mean what you say. Nehemiah offered his heart to God in prayer, and in the next chapter of Nehemiah he approaches Artexerxes, successfully pleads his case to the king, and then spends the next decades of his life carrying out the purpose he lifted to God in prayer. What’s your purpose? Do you want God to help you figure it out? Then carry it out? Live it out? Do you mean it? Be sure, because your prayers are powerful.

“O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give success to your servants today, and grant us mercy. Amen.” 
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