7/29/2012 sermon: Praying for Resurrection

Location: Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, VA
Text: Ephesians 3:14-21
Proper 12, Year B

Praying for Resurrection

Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, VA

I had only been at Resurrection about a week when someone—I don’t remember who—said to me, “For a congregation that’s dying, we are SO full of life!” I have found that observation to be true, in both of its dimensions.

First, all we have to do to detect signs of our parish’s terminal illness is to look around us. We are more than a few folks short of a full church. In fact, our average age might be higher than our average attendance. In this I’m not telling you anything that would distinguish the Church of the Resurrections from many of the Episcopal—or, for that matter, Methodist, Lutheran, or Presbyterian—churches right here in Northern Virginia. In fact, in the way that the world reckons success, Resurrection isn’t doing very well. We have well-diagnosed the illness, but have not yet discerned the cure.

On the other hand, what is way above the norm here is that second part of the astute observation that I quoted, “… we are SO full of life.” In my eight short weeks here I have looked around in positive amazement and delight at all that goes on here and from this mission station that is the Church of the Resurrection. By my count there are about a dozen small groups that meet in the course of a month where about half of our members grow spiritually by studying the Bible and through prayer. There are fellowship opportunities galore. There are many hands of the Lord reaching out from this place to our community and the world, especially to help feed those who are hungry in our city.

So far I probably haven’t told you anything you don’t already know. You might even be wondering how this connects with our scripture lessons today. I am going to tell you right up front, right now, what I am wondering. I am wondering, “What do YOU ask and imagine for our Church of the Resurrection when you pray?

When I read our epistle lesson, I was instantly reminded of our parish. I can imagine that our bishops—Shannon, Ted, AND NOW Susan—praying the prayer we read there. The prayer is in two parts, and this is the first part:

I pray that, according to the riches of HIS glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through HIS Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.

I have no idea of the posture that our bishops use when they pray. Perhaps they pray while they exercise, or as they fold their clothes, or as they drive about our very large diocese. However, I imagine them on their knees in the chapel at Mayo House in Richmond, each praying for us as a parish. Here is part two of their prayer:

I pray that YOU may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

I don’t know if these are the exact prayers that our bishops are praying, to be strengthened in Christ in both our heart and minds. I hope that YOU, each, are praying these prayers for our parish. But whoever is praying for us, their prayers are surely being answered. There is an authentic discipleship evident here, one that is being put to work to help others beyond our walls.

A few weeks ago, when our summer choir was rehearsing, a woman in this congregation sat listening to the music. She had tears streaming down her face. She told me that the music was so beautiful, and the words so true, that she was crying because there would be so few people to hear our testimony.

I could tell you several similar stories, but this is the only one I have obtained permission to share. Collectively these experiences at Resurrection tell me that God has, indeed, strengthened our inner being with power through his Spirit.

Paul says that we are strengthened by the power of the Spirit “according to the riches of [Christ’s] glory.” There are three implications to this statement:

First, Paul is saying that if we are strong we are strong not for our own glory, or by our own merits, but by Christ’s. This is very reassuring information. Ultimately, our successes are not through our own merit any more than our failures are. We certainly do not exist for our own glory!

Second, if our fate is tied to the “riches of God’s glory,” then what have we to fear? This reminds me of what I learned a few weeks ago, when Jesus’ disciples were afraid of their boat being swamped in a storm: “Why should we fear being capsized, if God is the ocean?”

Finally, God’s glory is very rich, indeed. So a better measure of our worth as a parish is not our bank account level or average Sunday attendance, but how much we reflect God’s glory in thought, word, and action. By these measures, our parish is very, VERY RICH.

Now I know that “We can’t pay our bills with God’s glory.” There is, indeed, a practical element to our existence. BUT, I suggest that God’s glory is sufficient. Don’t we, in every generation, have the task of giving our faith away? Maybe the time has come to give our faith away in such a way that in dying, we have new life. What would dying to receive new life entail for the Church of the Resurrection in this time and place? What would dying to receive new life mean in our parish?

The author of Ephesians (let’s call him Paul) wrote this letter to encourage the people of a very young and precarious congregation to rely not on themselves for continued existence, but on God, the God met in Christ Jesus. How Paul did this was to pray a series of prayers for his congregation, the two prayers we have already heard twice today.

First, he prayed for Christ to live in the hearts of the people, for power in their inner being. Paul did not warn them against giving up, he prayed for them to claim the power (God’s power) needed to continue. Are we, individually and collectively, praying for God’s power to embody, to spark, to fuel our continued existence? We need God’s power, the power of the Holy Spirit, to resist living a life or experiencing a death marked by fear and self-preservation, rather than by the power of Christ working through us.

This raises the question of how, even given the great spiritual riches evident in the Church of the Resurrection, we might need strengthening in our inner being:

  • Have we, for instance, prided ourselves on welcoming absolutely everyone who walks through our doors into our worship, rather than welcoming everyone here into our hearts and lives?
  • Have we created absolutely beautiful worship for ourselves, forgetting that we exist as a church only to give God away to others?
  • How much are we willing to change to accommodate those whom God brings to our doors?
  • How much are willing to share of our story, to bring people through our doors?
  • How much are we willing to leave these doors behind to continue to be the Church of the Resurrection?

After praying for God to strengthen the hearts and minds of the people of Ephesus, Paul offered a benediction to his prayer, a blessing for his congregation. His benediction is a reminder of what is possible if we are willing to accept the prescription that he has given for curing our illness:

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.

What can we at the Church of the Resurrection accomplish in our remaining time as a parish (whether that time be five years or 500)? What are WE able to ask or imagine?

I confess that I had written a whole different sermon for today, one about Jesus walking on the water. But even though we ended up exploring the epistle reading instead of the gospel lesson, Douglas John Hall’s words still apply:

What is truly awe-inspiring is not that someone could walk on the surface of the water without sinking, but that his presence among ordinary, insecure, and timid persons [SUCH AS US] could calm their anxieties and cause them to walk where they feared to walk before—in the end, all the way to their own Golgothas.[1]

What can we at the Church of the Resurrection accomplish in our remaining time as a parish (whether that time be five years or 500)? What are WE able to ask or imagine?


[1] Douglas John Hall in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3, 286.

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