Thoughts and Prayers

This sermon was preached at the Chrism Mass and Renewal of Vows on Holy Tuesday at Trinity Lutheran Church, Mercer Island, and Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Longview
March 27, 2018

The true radical is the one who continually subjects the Church to the judgement of the Kingdom, to the claims of God in the increasingly non-religious world which the Church exists to serve.

I have been revisiting John AT Robinson’s book Honest to God, which came out in 1963, the year I was born, and which rocked the church and Christianity to its core when it came out. There is a lot of water under the bridge since then and with all we have seen since, it now doesn’t get much more than a yawn. But I still find a lot of good and a lot of challenge in it. The quote I just rehearsed being one of them.

The true radical is the one who continually subjects the Church to the judgement of the Kingdom, to the claims of God in the increasingly non-religious world which the Church exists to serve.

Like many of you I marched this past Saturday in the March for Our Lives in Seattle. It is amazing how this Lent has been framed by this movement in our country. No matter where you stand on the issue, the mere fact that this moment, sadly like so many other such events, yet this one, has taken the country to a new place. It seems some tipping point has been reached. The tumultuous mix we are living in right now, seems to have created the perfect scenario for a movement. Not to mention, nor to underestimate, a wonderfully powerful, confident, and unrelenting group of young people, a generation, who have decided enough is enough.

It has also pointed out, if you had any doubts at all before, that this is no longer, if it ever was, a Christian nation. The fact that I have never once heard any media person mention that the shooting at Parkland, occurred on Ash Wednesday, but instead was totally eclipsed by the fact that it was also Valentines’s Day, which although that came from the Church, is almost totally now a secular preciousness in our collective life, is just one indicator.

Yet another one was front and center in the march this past Saturday. It was one of the signs that really got my attention over and over again as we walked, the one that rather convicted me you might say, because I felt its sentiment, was on me, was my responsibility to own and to repent of in some way, were the many that I saw that said, in various ways, “we don’t need your thoughts and prayers, we need action.”

One had three words, “Thoughts, line through it, Prayers, line through it. ACTION,” all caps.

A few days before the march a CNN headline read, “How “thoughts and prayers” went from common condolence to cynical meme.” The writer, AJ Willingham, wrote,

Semantic satiation is the phenomenon in which a word or phrase is repeated so often it loses its meaning. But it also becomes something ridiculous, a jumble of letters that feels alien on the tongue and reads like gibberish on paper.
“Thoughts and prayers” has reached that full semantic satiation. CNN (AJ Willingham)

In one highly-shared image, “Thoughts and Prayers” is imprinted on the side of a garbage truck. Another meme shows an empty van. “Excellent news,” it reads. “The first truckload of your thoughts and prayers has just arrived.”

Comedian Anthony Jeselnik was one of the first to publicly make fun of the phrase. In his 2015 “Thoughts and Prayers” routine, he references the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, movie-theater shooting and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing as occasions for faux concern.

Of thoughts and prayers, he says: “Do you know what that’s worth? F***** nothing. F***** less than nothing. You are not giving any of your time, your money or even your compassion.”

The audience went wild.

After the Orlando nightclub shooting in June 2016, video game developer Mike Lacher made a “Thoughts and Prayers” 8-bit video game. In it, you try to prevent mass shootings by pressing buttons that say “think” and “pray.” If you press a button that says “ban assault weapon sales,” you’re rejected.
“Weak!” the game screen reads. “UnAmerican!” And then it finally says “Pray harder!”

After 14 civil servants were killed in a December 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, the New York Daily News, known for its bold, attention-grabbing headlines, ditched the wordplay.

“GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS,” with the subtitle “the latest batch of innocent Americans are left lying in pools of blood, cowards who could truly end gun scourge continue to hide behind meaningless platitudes.”

 

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but for us who are being saved, it is the power of God.

IN this case, we, the church need to seriously consider if we are the ones perishing, or the ones being saved. Or are we trying harder to save ourselves, than in being who God is calling us to?

I think that is only honest.?

And even within the issue of gun violence we have to repent. Like it or not it took 17 mostly white youth being slaughtered to finally make us move. The House of Bishops I am part of never spoke out as emphatically and unanimously as it did after this event. It is a good question to ask of us. Where were we when all the people of color died over these past years. Countless people of color have died, far more than could be imagined, just in 12 square blocks of Chicago the numbers are vastly greater. And it certainly isn’t only about gun violence. The entire metoo movement, is another perfect example, where we have not only so often been silent, but even more complicit, and sadly even explicit in this.

I think that sign is calling me to teach and model how thoughts and prayers turn to action and transformed lives, and change in us, not just on Sunday, but every day. I think we have to listen to that sign, learn from it.

I don’t ask these things today because I think you need a lecture from me. I ask it today because, like every preacher, I am asking myself. What is it to be a radical in the life of holy orders. What does it mean to be a radical follower of Jesus when under the vows of ordination?

A few years ago, at this service, you heard an excellent sermon from Bishop Unti, on the words we find in the Gospel today, Sir, we want to see Jesus. He reminded us that all those who will step into our churches this week, and any time they have the courage to do so, are asking that question. They don’t just want to hear about Jesus. They don’t want history, or theological musings. They want to see Jesus.

For all the rightful skepticism that I see in those signs and sentiments about thoughts and prayers, I think they are also a cry to us, to be who we say we are, to live up to the one we follow, to not just say the prayers, but to be the answer to them too. To live them out. In the midst of those signs many came up to me to genuinely say, thanks for being there. And when I would engage them they were not all the Episcopalians who showed up. Some even admitted not being religious, but they said, we need you here. We need your voice. We need you being who you say you are.

That is still what we are called to do. Our vows alone are something that can fly in the face of what the world says is important, can even be ridiculed as weak and naive, and yes foolish. And yet, we have to be listening to the questions, which are real, and we have to believe we can truly learn from them.

Robinson also said the church should always be struggling with the amazing grace of a God that loves all and is open to all, and in the end calls on us to love. You may have just seen this morning the story about Kate Bowler, whose cancer diagnosis and struggle has moved her theology to a new place. She said, I have moved from the notion that everything happens for a reason, to simply everything happens, and that God is in it with us.

I have often said the bumper sticker “S*&^ Happens” is a profound theological statement.

She said I think we need to stop interpreting everyone’s pain and struggle and start simply loving them through it.

And that would be love, for all that love truly is, love is not always nice, and not always comforting. Anyone that parents, or has ever been in a deep relationship of any kind, ought to get that. Robinson went on to write,.

A church where this wrestling is not being seriously attempted, especially in the most educated generation of its history to date, will be impoverished in its capacity to transform the world rather than be conformed to it.

Marjorie Stoneman Douglas will now forever been known as the name of the high school where this shooting occurred, and where this movement began. Not many have a clue who the real Majorie Stoneman Douglas was.

She was one of the most famous Floridians, an author, feminist and ardent environmentalist known as “The Voice of the Everglades.” She called it the River of Grass. She is often cited as singlehandedly saving it from developers. It was said and written of her, “She fought the apathy of normal people.” She lived to be 108 years old. She began in an Episcopal family, but ended her long life as an avowed agnostic, putting in her final plans that she did not want any prayers or any religious language in her memorials. When she talked about that in her life, she said she had never forgiven God for not answering her prayers when she was 12 and her mother died.

Regardless of that she went on to do tremendous good. I believe in a God that loved her just as much, and I believe in a Church that has a responsibility to end the bad theology about the nature of God, and the purpose of prayer, that remains so prevalent and leads so many to the conclusions of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, and those who carried that sign in that march.

Perhaps the most radical thing you and I can do, is teach that, change that, challenge that.

I think we are being rightfully challenged. The world doesn’t need our thoughts and prayers, without our action. And that is really the crux of the matter isn’t it?. If there is a a holy trinity of practice in Christianity, I would say it is that. Thoughts, prayers, action. They are all of a piece.

Even what we do right here, right now, is done so that something different, better, more real might happen when we leave.

I don’t think those who carry those signs are opposed to our thoughts and prayers, but what they want to see is how that changes us, propels us to something more, makes us risk in foolish and wasteful ways for the love that Jesus, the one we follow, lived and died for.

This week, many will come again to hear this incredibly wild and difficult story of resurrection. They keep coming, year after year, hoping to find something that makes them believe it too. So many want to.

To do that, what you are being called to do, is an arduous, and awesome, task. It is daunting, and risky, indeed, many would say foolish, and I am in awe of you as you do it.

Now, Something tells me I should not end this sermon with, my thoughts and prayers are with you.

I hope you know they are, as I hope yours are with me. I still believe in those, but I have been convicted of late, that we can do more with what comes after those, the truth of our faith that these are mere preparation, the first steps, to what resurrection is all about now, today. I think what Bishop Unti (Jaech) and I want to say is this, we are with you, and for you, and blessed to work and learn from you.

I often, before a service, use a prayer attributed to John AT Robinson, and I end with it today, in great thanksgiving for all of you.

The Lord be with you

Holy One, take our thoughts, and transform those into prayer, take our prayer and transform those into love, take our love and transform that into life lived in you, today and always. Amen.