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Thoughts and Prayers

Galatians  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Psalm Reading

Psalm 77:1–2 ESV
I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, and he will hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.
Psalm 77:11–20 ESV
I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds. Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God? You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples. You with your arm redeemed your people, the children of Jacob and Joseph. Selah When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; indeed, the deep trembled. The clouds poured out water; the skies gave forth thunder; your arrows flashed on every side. The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lighted up the world; the earth trembled and shook. Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Hebrew Scripture Reading

1 Kings 19:1–15 ESV
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God. There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” And the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria.

Epistle Reading

Galatians 3:10–29 ESV
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one. Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

Thoughts and Prayers

This is an incident that competes in numbers to slaughters of Native Americans, African Americans, and other minority groups in some of our country’s darkest times. At a time when we want to pride ourselves in our wonderful, civilized culture, we continue to slide back into patterns of hate from centuries gone by.
“Thoughts and prayers” has, oddly, become a bit of a controversial phrase. Every time there is a tragedy - a mass shooting, a natural disaster, the fire at Notre Dame, children being removed from their parents when trying to seek shelter in a new place, even a personal crisis like illness or death - people talk about offering their “thoughts and prayers” to those affected.
Forty-nine daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, partners, parents, and friends were murdered by a man who couldn’t see their humanity through his inexplicable anger and hate. Murdered by a man whose hate and fear wound up taking his life as well.
The reason this has become controversial is that it can sound like a bit of a cop out. It’s like telling a hungry person, “I pray you’ll find some food soon” rather than feeding them like Jesus tells us to do. Yes. Pray for people. But feed them too.
That is what this is really about. That’s what all of these mass murders are about, from Wounded Knee to Sandyhook to Orlando. They are about sin: hate and fear clouding one person’s ability to see the humanity of the people around them. 
When you do a google search for how many people were killed last week in the Pulse nightclub shooting, most of the results you’ll get say there were 49 people killed. But there were 50 people killed that night. One of them died after killing the other 49, but 50 people still died. It’s easy to forget the humanity of the shooter in our desire to remind the world of the humanity of the victims. The shooter was a sick man, but he was still human.
It’s infuriating. It’s frustrating. It’s terrifying – fear begets fear after all. Anger begets anger. Violence begets more violence. 
And so we are left wondering. . . now what? 
When we are faced with overwhelming problems in our world that clearly go against God’s intentions for humanity, how do we move beyond a facebook profile picture frame supporting the latest victim? How do we figure out where we should jump in and where we can really help?
Very few of us will ever be in a position where we’ll be called to be direct responders to a situation like 9-11 or the Charleston church shooting. Not many of us are able to pick up and move to Uganda like my friend Kathryn who is an attorney defending women against gender based violence. And it’s rare for a person or even a congregation to have such a firm sense of identity and calling that they are able to grow into their full God-given potential. So we’re left feeling helpless, frustrated, and even numb to the horror of what’s happening in the world around us. 
We can and must stand up for what’s right. We can and should champion the cause of compassion, justice, unity, and grace. We can and should build our lives on faith, hope, and love. And very few people out there – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, atheist or other - will disagree with what I just said. So why do hate, injustice, prejudice, and fear still run rampant in our world? Why do we still have extreme hate groups like the KKK and Westboro Baptist Church out there? If they are the minority, why is their voice louder? Why is it that most churches are seen as irrelevant peddlers of “thoughts and prayers”?
I think that G. K. Chesterton hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”
It’s not that there is anything wrong with standing up for what’s right. It’s good to champion compassion, justice, unity, and grace. It’s lovely in theory to live a life built on faith, hope, and love. But man, it’s hard.  It’s easier to just offer thoughts and prayers without actually changing anything about what we are doing or saying.
While the lead up in Elijah’s story is quite different to our own, he’s left feeling the same sort of way. This prophet called by God to stand up for what is right and true did not find  the road easy. There are enemies out to kill him, there is violence and bloodshed all around, and he’s stuck in a cave by himself trying to figure out “now what?”
The prophet who, just previously had shown up a whole slew of the false God Ba’al’s prophets, was now a terrified mess. The prophets of Ba’al had been slaughtered for their inability to make good on what they’d said they could do, but instead of receiving some sort of accolades for outing their falsehoods, Elijah was now on the run from an evil queen. 
He stood up for what was right. But the evil was louder. Queen Jezebel is a bad guy of Disney-like proportions. And even after doing what God called him to do, Elijah finds himself hiding in a cave waiting for further instruction from God. 
Then we fast-forward to Galatians and this word about being “heirs to the promise.” Scripture says that if we belong to Jesus, we are heirs to the promise. What the heck sort of promise is this that lands a powerful prophet in a cave? That gives us the task of speaking out against hate – a dangerous and unpopular job indeed?
In the midst of turmoil, it can be hard to listen for God’s voice. Perhaps that is why God didn’t speak in the wind or the earthquake or the fire. In the midst of the turmoil, Elijah must have been too shaken by the power and danger of it all to listen. God needed Elijah to see past the drama to see the future. 
Elijah’s faith needed to come not just out of the turmoil, but out of the hope of the future, the place of peace, the quiet rest in God when the dust settles. 
In Simon and Garfunkel’s song “The Sound of Silence”, there is a sense of loss and lament over the unheard voices of the oppressed and hurt.  It is one of the most deeply heartfelt and theologically relevant pop songs I can think of. They nailed it when they sang that we need to stop and listen more, to hear the unsung songs, and to break the silence. But the song just sort of drops off a sad cliff at the end. It is a call to arms, but there is no resolution offered.
It’s sort of like saying “My thoughts and prayers are with. . .”
Thank God for Jesus Christ – the ultimate resolution. You see, Galatians tells us that we are all equal in Christ. Not the same! This isn’t about not seeing the differences between people – that’s silly – but embracing everyone equally for who they are and giving everyone a voice. We have to shut up and listen in the silence because that’s where God speaks - outside of the drama. We have to listen to voices that haven’t been heard or haven’t been allowed to speak because God speaks through them.
In our book of order, we read:
“. . . and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world” G-1.0302 says that “A congregation shall welcome all persons who trust in God’s grace in Jesus Christ and desire to become part of the fellowship and ministry of his Church (F-1.0403). No person shall be denied membership for any reason not related to profession of faith. The Gospel leads members to extend the fellowship of Christ to all persons. Failure to do so constitutes a rejection of Christ himself and causes a scandal to the Gospel.” says that in Christ, “28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 1” The diversity of the church is a reflection of the Kingdom of Heaven”
This isn’t about being politically correct. This isn’t about taking a side as a liberal or a conservative. This is especially not about letting a political party tell you what is and isn’t moral or right or just or who is worthy of compassion and who is not. This is about humanity. This is about the fact that in Jesus, we are all equal. There is hope for absolutely everyone and absolutely everyone is a precious creation made by God.
We have to listen to the voices of those left behind by the tens of thousands of Americans who die yearly from gun violence.? We have to listen to the people who are showing up at American borders seeking asylum from war and poverty and gangs. We have to give voice to the men and women who can’t afford a few hundred dollars for bail and are being held without conviction at the county jail. We must listen to the gay couple who was just refused service know that. Pittsburgh’s increasingly large numbers of immigrants from around the globe deserve a voice.
Did the description of any one of those groups of people raise up anger or discomfort for you as if they somehow deserve to be disliked or are less worthy of justice and compassion? Did the thought of spending time with one of these groups of people make you uncomfortable? Are you afraid that in listening to them, you might have to back down or change a long-held belief or let go of fear? Because when we look at Galatians today, they are all beloved by God. They are all worthy of listening to.
There is a reason that we have a cross up front and center in the sanctuary. And there is a reason that we don’t have a figure of Jesus on the cross that we have up front. It is because this is not a sign of our shame or our guilt. It is not a conversation starter for us to tell people how sinful they are. It is a sign of hope. Hope of salvation, hope of resurrection, hope that in the darkest of times we are not left alone by our Heavenly Father, but rather God came down to walk among us and to be here with us in the midst of our darkest times.  Hope that God offers more than just thoughts and prayers.
Our job as church in the world is this: spread the news of hope in Jesus Christ to everyone he died for. That is, in case I haven’t made myself painfully clear yet, everyone. () Anyone who tells you there are any people who are less deserving of a place at the table, of dignity, respect, love, comfort, joy, etc, has either not read or has misread the Bible or they are a liar protecting their own interests.
Here’s the money question: even before we ask ourselves how to start, we have to ask ourselves where to start. Someone asked me at Bible study recently, “OK, you’ve sold us. We’re ready to start something new and different and exciting - where do we start?”
We can’t just take up all the causes out there because while you are all some pretty amazing, loving, creative people, our numbers are not overwhelming. And let’s face it, even big churches can’t just take up every cause under the sun and start fixing things. This starts small. This starts with our discernment time of prayer and reflection. It starts by studying the community and seeing what needs are really out there. Who is it that’s being ignored or silenced right here in our own backyard?
We have to research and study and get to know our neighborhood and then ask God where we are to take action. Did you know there is a large African refugee population in Pittsburgh? Specifically on the northside - some are even from Rwanda, a place we all know and love more today than we did a few months ago before Tom, Martha, and I went there. Did you know that almost 5% of the population of Emsworth is living below the poverty line? And while Sewickley has a higher average income overall, over 6% of Sewickley residents are living below the poverty line? Did you know the county jail holds around 2000 inmates - many of whom haven’t been tried yet for the crimes they are accused of?
Our denomination has resources for engagement in just about any justice or compassion issue you can think of. We just have to find our passion. We have to figure out the “what” before we start to do the how. So as we continue to pray together in this season of discernment, I want you to think about this:
Prayer prompt:
What action is our congregation called to in moving beyond “thoughts and prayers”? Specifically, what injustice in the world is it that we are most passionate about as a community?
O God, show us clearly the heart of the Kingdom of GOd. We do not protest even if our life is destined to lead to the cross, or if the way leads to our losing our lives. We will march in the face of distress and contrary winds. Teach us how to dispense with unnecessary things. Let us go forward without fear of death. in order to fulfill our mission simply, surely, and steadily. Reveal to us our station clearly, and strengthen us to teach and guide, by our example, all persons, even those who are ruled by evil. We pray that you may find us worthy to work through us. Amen.
“. . . and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world” G-1.0302 says that “A congregation shall welcome all persons who trust in God’s grace in Jesus Christ and desire to become part of the fellowship and ministry of his Church (F-1.0403). No person shall be denied membership for any reason not related to profession of faith. The Gospel leads members to extend the fellowship of Christ to all persons. Failure to do so constitutes a rejection of Christ himself and causes a scandal to the Gospel.” says that in Christ, “28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 1” The diversity of the church is a reflection of the Kingdom of Heaven”
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