What do we pray for? Think for a moment about our prayer requests. I’m not making a judgment of any kind. This is simply an observation. Consider the types of prayer requests we offer on any given Sunday morning, whether they are joys or concerns. What do they consist of?
If it’s the list I’ve included in the bulletin or names I’ve solicited from you; we are usually praying for nouns. We pray for people, places, or things. Nouns dominate our prayer list. We pray for people who are sick, in the hospital, or undergoing medical treatment. We pray for those who’ve reached milestones like birthdays and anniversaries. This year, our prayers have been for people and places; Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida, California, and Las Vegas. We also pray for the events associated with those places. When specific things are occurring, we mention and lift them up because that’s what we do.
There’s nothing wrong with being “noun prayers”. This is how people have prayed throughout most of human history.
Occasionally, we’ll pray for something other than a “tangible” noun. I might throw something in, though still a noun, that’s a bit harder to define. I did this after the events in Charlottesville last August, when I said, “We pray for peace.”
Consider some of the things we normally pray for; healing from disease or rebuilding after a natural disaster. Those are concrete requests. In essence, we’re asking, “God, heal my relative. Do this specific, measurable thing in our life or in the lives of whom we’ve become aware.”
Peace is a nebulous prayer request. You might say it’s downright elusive. In a sense, we’ve self-edited our prayers down to something we believe to be manageable and doable. Big-ticket concerns, like peace, seem so out of the realm of human possibility I wonder if we have stopped believing God cares about what (to us) sounds elusive and impossible? I’m not sure. I know that for some reason I am erring on the side of the “tangible” noun. Perhaps as we get ready to head into the Advent season of big expectations, we need to consider praying for things a little less tangible.
This idea came home to me as I reread Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s there, hiding in plain sight, in the first chapter, where Paul is talking about all the things he prays for. Ephesians 1 is a behind the scenes look at Paul’s notes, what’s on the papers jammed in his Bible, scribbled on his iPad, and a window into his personal devotional life. We get a one on one with the man most responsible for the development and spread of early Christianity as he tells us what his devotional life looks like.
Here’s the broad overview: “I don’t stop giving thanks to God for you when I remember you in my prayers.” From the beginning, Paul says his prayers are framed in a spirit of thanksgiving. Gratitude shapes and guides his prayer life. Shouldn’t that be a clue for our own prayer life? Are our prayers framed in gratitude?
“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the father of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation that makes God known to you.” Will the church engage with the wisdom and knowledge God has given them? Paul’s prayer is for the Ephesians to become active disciples.
It’s the third prayer, verse 18, that drew my attention. Here’s what Paul says, “I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers.”
Did you catch that? When was the last time we prayed for hope? I’m not talking about hope for something in particular, just hope?
Paul prays for the Ephesians to have hope; talk about a word fraught with uncertainty and ambiguity!
What is hope? Hope could be a basic pie-in-the-sky optimism for one person. For another, it’s a Pollyannaish outlook that no matter what life throws at you, it’s all going to work out. Maybe you’re a glass half-full person. That’s how our world, reared on Oprah and self-help books, has come to think about hope.
For 1st century Christians, their idea of hope wasn’t like our 21st century meme driven culture.
We confuse optimism with hope. Optimism isn’t hope. Optimism is finite. Hope keeps you going when you’re in a Roman prison. Paul was never optimistic. He was sometimes pessimistic. However, he had hope in spades.
Hope is what sends Paul to a place like Ephesus in the first place. A city where a tiny Jewish community and a struggling group of Gentile Christians is heavily outnumbered in an eastern Roman Imperial commercial and religious metropolis. Hope calls a Christian community together in a place where none should ever thrive or possibly exist. Paul is praying the Ephesians see the hope unfolding right before their very eyes. Hope is where the kingdom of God comes together; usually at a table, with singing, sharing, laughter, and prayer. The universe is reconciled over dinner. Songs are sung, stories are told, bread is broken, and hope becomes more tangible than anyone ever imagined. Hope made the kingdom of God a reality in Ephesus. Hope makes the kingdom of God a reality here as well. Cosmic stuff happens when people, despite their differences, ask each other to “pass the salt and pepper”. That’s hope.
Hope is what it is. For Methodists like us, hope might be simply singing, “O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be! Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee. Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.”
Hope, like peace, is fragile. We are prone to wander and leave the God we love. This is why Paul prays so fervently for the ongoing hope being realized in the church at Ephesus. Living into intangible nouns takes work. Engaging with our prayers, becoming active participants with God’s ongoing revelation in the here and now, isn’t easy.
Our inclination, as Paul well knows, is to go back and do our own thing. From the comfort of our pews, homes, cars, and other insulated bubbles we once again trade hope for optimism and get back to our list of concrete, tangible prayers and once again feel like we’re doing something religious. We passively pray, God acts (or not), and the divine status quo is never disturbed. We stop meeting in friendship at the table. God’s story is never told. We’re too busy talking about each other to listen or respond to God.
Should hope or “hopeful awareness” be on our prayer list? Yes. How do we heed Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians? How do we keep hope alive without fracturing like a bunch of ill mannered Corinthians or infighting Galatians? Can we keep our Ephesians hope alive and stirred up, like Thursday’s gravy?
I think the first step toward hopeful awareness is recognition of the different gifts we bring to our common table. Hope, while an intangible tangible, isn’t a uniform emotion. We all give voice to the chorus which will eventually produce harmony. Hope is formed by a simultaneous progression of parts to produce a pleasing, unified sound. We all have a part to sing or play. In isolation, it sounds strange. When you put the parts together, we can see where the music is going, where the melody is heading, and how we’re going to get there together.
How do you get better at your part? In a larger choir (orchestra or band) they’re called section rehearsals. Here, we just say, “altos over here” or “sopranos only”. Each section works on their part. The altos work on their part, tenors rehearse their line, and so on. The sections spend concentrated time on the music written exclusively for them to sing or play. So what happens? When you come back together, everybody sounds great because you know your part. The harmony, the hope, is perfect.
What I’m afraid has happened, both in the church and in society at large, is that we’ve gotten too comfortable in our sections. This sectionalism (or tribalism) is killing our ability to have “enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call”. Staying in our sections, singing our parts, talking to ourselves about how great it is to be an alto, has led to us hating the tenors, demonizing the bases, and ignoring the sopranos altogether. We do this in church and we do it the world. It’s impossible to be hopeful if we never come out of our section, sit down together, and sing around the table. It’s also inconceivable for a Christian community to pray for hope when our differences define us more than our commonalities.
There’s something bigger than our section. It’s choir, the symphony, or the orchestra. The section doesn’t exist as a means to an end. Paul wants the Ephesians (and us) to realize that we’re part of something larger than we can realize. That’s why he uses words like “light” and “see”. We need to hope so we’ll have the light to see the bigger picture of what our section has been called to join.
Hope isn’t something we possess. Hope comes alive in community as a shared reality among believers. I challenge you to hear hope in the voices, stories, lives, and songs of others. Listen for the harmony that comes when you leave your section and join in the chorus of the Saints. What do hear? What are you able to do with that sound? Does the sound of hope made real move you beyond the mealy mouth pessimism of the crowd? When it all comes together, does hope move you in ways you can’t quite put into words? It’s supposed to. Paul says God’s power is a kinetic force, an animating energy. What made the resurrection possible keeps us going too.
“God’s power was at work in Christ when God raised him from the dead and sat him at God’s right side in the heavens, far above every ruler and authority and power and angelic power, any power that might be named not only now and in the future.” That’s hope at work.
Do not be afraid to hope. Leave your sections. The section rehearsals must end. Come together and sing with the church around the table which Jesus has prepared. Others are waiting to share with you. Hear the Good News: Paul is not only praying for the Ephesians. He is praying for us. We can answer this prayer.
Richard Lowell Bryant
*I am grateful to the work of Rev. Dr. Edgardo Colon-Emeric and Rev. Dr. Allen Hilton for the ideas and inspiration for this sermon.