Sermon. June 6, 2021
Rev. John Steitz
Paul writes, “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16).
We are aware of our limitations and the finite reality of our bodies. Prayer renews us and deepens our ability to connect to God’s call for our lives. Our inner spiritual renewal is not just for our benefit. We are being renewed within for ministry in the world.
The individualistic character of our U.S. American culture poses a false divide between spirituality and justice. The biblical perspective is that the spiritual life and the just life are one and the same. The prophet Micah sums this view up, “What does the LORD require of you? But to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with the LORD your God.” Living a life of justice, loving and being kind, and humbly walking a spiritual path with God are integrated together as a sum greater than the parts.
Douglas Steere was a 20th century practical theologian and Quaker. He wrote extensively on prayer and solidarity (social responsibility / social concern).
Steere’s practical theology of prayer and solidarity has five core themes: prayer and the Oneness of God’s creation; prayer and God’s love; prayer and meaning; solidarity and genuine prayer; and integration of prayer and solidarity.
1. Prayer and the Oneness of God’s Creation.
Through prayer we develop and deepen an awareness that we ourselves, and others are created in God’s image. Prayer deepens an understanding of “creatureliness,” that we belong to God.
This connects us to other persons who like us are formed in the image of God. Just as we belong to God and have “that of God within us,” so too other persons also belong to God, and have “that of God within” them as well.
Our awareness of that we and others are all created in God’s image also nurtures a sense of solidarity with all persons and all creation. We uphold the dignity of ourselves and of others.
How are we to treat someone who is created in God’s image, who belongs to God, and who has “that of God” within them? Only dignity and respect will suffice.
This consciousness of solidarity opens the way to develop what Steere calls “seeds of concern.” When we prayer for another person a concern for that person grows within us. This concern for another is the root of solidarity.
One example of how “seeds of concern” grow within us is the planning for Multicultural Celebrations. These celebrations are acts of prayer. Prayers that connect us together as we appreciate the gifts that come from diverse cultures. Prayers which move us to hold each other up with dignity and respect. Prayers that build bridges between people from different backgrounds opening our hearts to see each other as being created in God’s image. Prayers which celebrate that we are all created in God’s image, and we all have “that of God” within us.
2. Prayer and God’s love.
Through prayer an awareness of God’s love for every person emerges within us. God’s love is not only for our family, our community, our tribe, our nation. God’s love is for every person.
The love God has for every person enlarges our ability to love others. We learn to love in ways we might not have imagined possible.
God has infinite concern for every person. God’s infinite concern pushes us beyond ourselves and our narrow concerns. Prayer moves us to engage in God’s mission of redemption.
One place we see God’s infinite concern for every person being manifest is in our Open and Affirming ministry.
Prayer helps to connect us to God’s infinite concern for every person. This nurtures our consciousness of solidarity with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. Our acts of solidarity are embodied prayers.
Throughout the gospels whenever Jesus encounters persons who were marginalized and oppressed he loves them. Jesus sees their humanity and upholds their dignity as God’s children. He embraces and touches those seen as untouchable and unclean.
The early church organized to include the outcast and protect the vulnerable. In a culture where many were considered disposable, the church provided welcome and affirmation.
Affirming, welcoming, including, embracing – these are embodied prayers we extend to those who are excluded, marginalized, hurt, and told they are unlovable because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. We offer these affirming prayers in solidarity with those we know are created in God’s image just the way they are.
We wear rainbows to express our understanding that God has infinite concern for those who are oppressed and marginalized. We celebrate that LGBTQ+ people, just as all of us, have “that of God” within them. And we seek to extend dignity and respect to each one.
3. Prayer and meaning.
Prayer helps us connect to meaning and purpose. Prayer cleanses actions, work, and service of their repetitive nature. Prayer restores a frame of meaning.
One way that prayer can restore meaning is through music. Songs are prayers that are hummed and sung.
One type of musical prayer are the Spirituals. These were first sung by slaves who had little control over their lives, and no prospect of freedom in this life.
What meaning, purpose, and value does the life of a slave have? To be worked hard, given only the cheapest minimum shelter, food, and care necessary for them to function, and neglected or disposed when no longer useful.
In this horrible context the slaves found ways to uphold their dignity and survive brutal conditions. Sing – praying the Spirituals was a key way they asserted that they were God’s children, created in God’s image. The Spirituals did much more than help them get through long days of labor in the humid air and under the hot sun.
The Spirituals helped to give their lives meaning and purpose. These sung prayers are proclamations that although their bodies were in bondage their hearts and minds were free. The Spirituals are prayers of liberation and resistance.
It is dangerous for slaves to assert spiritual liberation of hearts and minds, or to show any outward, discernable resistance. Many of the words are sung in code.
Prayer and solidarity are sung together in our music. We do not face the life crushing and life threatening challenges that slaves faced. Yet the power of music can stir our hearts.
Music can help us connect to God’s call for our lives. This brings our lives meaning and purpose.
4. Solidarity and genuine prayer.
Acts of solidarity clarify and test the genuineness of prayer.
The seeds of concern that have emerged earlier through prayer spark an interest in doing something. We don’t want to just offer our “thoughts and prayers,” we are moved to offer our presence.
Solidarity is prayer in action. Acts of solidarity move the person praying to be involved and present.
At the start of the pandemic my family began to meet every other evening for a video chat. Sometimes for ten minutes, sometimes for a half hour or more. Showing up to see each other is prayer and solidarity through caring and love. We can do this as a church family too.
Solidarity can be expressed in a prayer circle, with a care partner, or through a “cheer letter” or phone call. Solidarity can be expressed by working to include others through addressing accessibility concerns. Solidarity can be expressed by ensuring that people who live at a distance can continue to participate in Sunday school, Choir, and worship after we return to in-person ministry.
5. Integration of prayer and solidarity.
Too often people contrast prayer and solidarity as opposites. People who are deeply committed to prayer and spirituality can lack a concern for solidarity and justice. Likewise, justice oriented people can scorn prayer and a spiritual life.
Each of these, prayer and solidarity are incomplete by themselves. They need to be integrated into a unity where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
This can be done by alternating between prayer and acts of solidarity. This leads to a partial integration. There are times when this alternation is required. We offer our prayers without the ability to also offer our presence.
We are aware of the need for alternation and value both spirituality and justice, prayer and solidarity.
There are situations where we can fully integrate prayer and solidarity. Our prayer and acts of solidarity happen at the same time.
Prayer is an essential aspect of any local church’s ministry for inclusion, justice, and solidarity. Acts of solidarity are as well an essential aspect of a congregation’s ministry of prayer.