Sunday, September 28, 2014

The disappearance of Hannah Graham: Keeping our doors open for prayer

Our community, and especially our students, have had a difficult time recently with the disappearance
of Hannah Graham, a second-year University of Virginia student. Many of us attended a very moving candle light vigil on the grounds soon after she disappeared. Since then, an arrest has been made but she still has not been found.

This morning I preached about how we've kept our doors open for prayer in this time of uncertainty and anguish. Here is my sermon:

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         In recent days, with the very disturbing disappearance of University student Hannah Graham, I have been reminded once again why the Church exists.
         We exist to pray.
         A few days after her disappearance became known, we opened our doors – and I mean physically opened the doors and turned on the lights – for people to come in and pray, 24 hours a day.
         And they have been coming every day, at all hours, especially our university students.
         Those who come to pray may not know about our doctrine or creeds, and they might not know anything about our way of worship or that this is an Episcopal Church, or care anything else about this church.
         But they know this is a sacred place where it is safe to come, to be silent, to pray. Many people, especially students, have been here in these pews praying at noon and at midnight, and at 3am.
         I am very grateful to our staff members who have also been here at very odd hours so that we can keep the doors open.
         We are scaling back the hours, and will close the doors at 10 pm. But know this:
         We are here to pray.
We are here to pray in times of joy and times of sorrow. We are here to pray in times of comfort and times of uncertainty and danger.
We exist on this corner especially to pray when it is hardest to pray.
         Many of you have asked me in the last week what we can do about the disappearance of Hannah Graham, or about the many troubling conflicts in our world.
Pray, and take the risk of keeping these doors open to our community for prayer.
Prayer is a very powerful thing.
Praying together here sharpness our awareness of God’s holy presence within us and around us, and can strengthen us especially when we need it most.
Yes, God is everywhere. Yes, you can pray in your workplace or your home or at the grocery store.
         But there is something about praying here, in this holy place, on this corner – in our church building – that is extraordinary and sacred, and cannot be replicated anywhere else on this planet.
         We exist as a church to so that anyone can come here to pray.
William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury during the darkest moments of World War II, once put it: “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”
The last few days, I believe I know what he meant by that. I’ve felt keenly that keeping our doors open for all people is exactly why we were put here on this earth.
Praying is the most important thing we do.
         Don’t get me wrong. Everything we do here is important.
Our Sunday School for children, our teenage youth group, our Generation Wise group for our older people – all of these groups are hugely important and vibrant.
         But without prayer, we would be just another educational institution.
         And don’t get me wrong: our Canterbury University student program, our Wednesday Community Night, and our and Education for Ministry seminars provide fellowship, insights and fellowship.
         But without prayer, we would be just another social event.
         And don’t get me wrong: Our Salvation Army cook teams, our Stephen Ministers, our volunteer efforts with PACEM and the Haven for homeless people, and our advocacy for the poor through IMPACT – all of these are crucially important ministries in our community.
         But without prayer, we would be just another charity in a sea of charities.
And don’t get me wrong about one more thing:
The pulpit is a powerful tool for teaching, exhorting, proclaiming the Gospel, and doing what I’m doing now – preaching.
The pulpit is where we highlight the moral and ethical principles upon which we should build our lives, and sometimes we might even inspire you from here.
But the pulpit is not the center of the Church, and preaching is not the most important thing we do in our worship, as dear to my heart as that is.
The most important thing we do is pray, and the center of the Church is right there – the Lord’s Table – and that is no accident. This is where we gather all of our prayers and the longings of our hearts in the central act of our worship, our Holy Eucharist.

The word “Eucharist” is Greek for “thanksgiving,” as indeed our Eucharist is a prayer offered in thanks for everything God has given us.
         In our prayer of Holy Eucharist, we remember God’s gift of creation, we remember our place in creation, and we remember that God came to us as a human being, as Jesus Christ.
We remember his last supper on the night before he died, we remember he suffered and died on the Cross as one of us, and we remember how he rose again to fill the universe with love, grace and healing and be with us still.
Finally, at the Lord’s Table, we are bold to say the prayer he taught us to pray.
We ask the Father – Abba, in his Aramaic language – to give us the bread that will sustain us, the strength to forgive others – and to forgive ourselves – and to shroud us from trials that might break us, and evil that might overwhelm us.
Our prayers are more than just words. Prayer is about listening – listening deeply to God stirring within us as individuals and as a community.
It is why we call it “Common” prayer – not because our prayers are common, but because we pray in common together.
Our prayers surround us and embrace us. Our prayers come in our music, and in the silence; our prayers are what we see with visual symbols like the Cross, and what we taste and smell in the bread and wine of our Holy Eucharist.
We bring our whole selves – our body, mind and soul – to our prayers. We pray with our whole being, not just our intellect.
Even our financial gifts are a prayer. When we present our gifts in church, we don’t call it a “collection.”
Maybe other churches call donations that, but we don’t – and for very good reason.
We call our financial gifts an “offering,” because our giving is a prayerful offering of thanks. We appropriately present our offering at the Lord’s Table in our Holy Eucharist. We bless our offering of money, with our offering of bread and wine, as symbols of the fruit of our labor.
         All that is good and right in our lives – the fruits of our very beings – are offered at this Table, surrounded by our prayers.
In a way, I believe that is what Jesus is getting at in the parable this morning in the Gospel lesson from Matthew.
Jesus tells this pithy little story and asks: Who did the will of his father? The one who said he would work in the vineyard but didn’t? Or the one who said no, but changed his mind, and did the work?
Jesus is telling us that our fruits – our actions – tell us more about our prayers than our words. That is true for us as individuals, and true for us as community of faith.
What we do here matters. Our work is to keep this church open for prayer for all who enter here.
This parish church has stood on this corner as a beacon of hope for more than a century; a beacon in times of war, and times of peace; times of calm and times of anguish.
Just as with the generations before us, our prayers will renew our hope to meet the challenges that are ours to face, and our prayers will carry us beyond these doors to do the work that is ours to do.
May this parish church always stand on this corner as a beacon of hope, and may our doors always be open for prayer for all who enter, now and in the days ahead. AMEN

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