Pray and Act Boldly

Guest preacher: Rev. Cathy Abbott

Scripture: Acts 4:23-31

Friday, thousands of people came out to march in DC on the 57th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s stirring “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Representative John Lewis’s death on July 17 also reminded us of the witness of faithful people devoted to ending injustice.  He is remembered for many things—for his historic work in the civil rights movement; for his clarion calls for justice throughout a long political career; even for preaching to chickens as a child.  He was a man of God, who named the injustices of our world without falling into despair.  I treasure this tweet from 2019:

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way.” 

One Sunday morning, I was feeling parched and dry, and in need of some inspiration. So, Ernie and I headed downtown to the Martin Luther King Junior memorial.  Who here has been there? 

We walked around the massive image of King: emerging from a wall of stone.  Surrounding the image is a great wide circle of stone wall.  And as you follow the wall, there are all these sayings of Martin we used them today in our litany.  Now Martin…well, Martin had a way with words, didn’t he? Mulling his words, I tried to imagine what it would be like, to be a black preacher in the south at the beginning of the civil rights movement.  It was not an auspicious time.  There were many injustices; many hardships; many trials that Martin and his people faced.  And where, I wonder, did he get his courage?  Where did he find hope in the midst of that struggle?  Before the successes of the civil rights movement, there were many times when it looked like they would fail.  Many times, when Martin could have despaired.

As Ernie and I walked around the Memorial, we went out through this narrow slit between the walls—and turned around…and saw through these high sentinels, the “wall of stone.”  On the other side of that wall, Martin emerges from the rock–tall, powerful, leading.  But you don’t see Martin. 

What you see, off in the distance is the Jefferson Memorial—a symbol of hope; a symbol of freedom; a symbol of democracy at its best.  And on the stone out of which Martin Luther King Junior emerges is written:

Out of the mountain of despair; a stone of hope.

A stone of hope.  Where do we find hope in our own “mountains of despair?”  In this season, there is plenty to despair about:

  • Our nation failing so utterly to protect us from the ravages of this pandemic
  • Racism more deeply imbedded in our culture than we care to admit—the heavier toll of the pandemic on people of color than on people like me.  One more police shooting of a black man.
  • The economy
  • The state of our political discourse
  • The anxiety and fear that pervades our world.
  • And I am wondering, how many Zoom meetings at work just… exhaust you?
  • I could go on, but I won’t!

How do you live with hope when you are drained—tired and empty?

I confess that I have succumbed to near despair myself at times.  There was that year at Arlington Temple when Joan Cure, our long-time church secretary went to the hospital on Dec. 20th—-and died in March.  That was the year that my Dad came home to live with us for hospice care—and we had no idea what we were doing or how long he’d be with us…It was that same year that Kathy Lewman, my beloved lay leader, died—suddenly in the night, alone in her Rosslyn apartment.  Nobody knew she had a heart condition—and I had to go and identify the body. 

When I get into that “pit of despair,” I first try my feeble “it’s not so bad” self-talk:

  • I don’t have it as bad as Martin Luther King Jr—shot to death 48 years ago.  It’s one thing to risk your own life for the sake of justice—but to when the lives or your small children and your wife are placed at risk as well—that’s a heavy burden for a man to bear.    
  • I don’t have it as bad as Nadeem Khokhar did, a pastor who worked here while at seminary.   Nadeem was living in Pakistan when his Muslim business partner became so impressed with the way Nadeem conducted business that he, too wanted to become a Christian.  It’s not safe to do that in Pakistan.  And when the man was baptized and became a Jesus follower, his relatives threatened Nadeem…threatened him with death. 
  • Nadeem fled to the US, leaving his wife and three children in hiding.  (Blessedly, he has now been reunited with his family, and is serving a church in Blackstone.)
  • I don’t have it as bad as the apostle Paul, in prison for proclaiming the Gospel.

This self-talk works for a while…but it never holds.

Jesus says:

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”  (Matt 7:7)

What do we do when our troubles build up…and build up…and build up into a “mountain of despair”?

We can pray.  Sue Nilson Kibbey introduced me to a new way of praying.  She says there are three types of prayer:

  • “Threshold” prayer, which brings your current broken reality to the threshold of God; and asks for God to do a new thing; asks for hope; asks for possibility.  This is the kind of prayer Anne Lamont calls “Help, Help, Help.”  We’ve all done this kind of prayer:  you’re running late to the airport, and pray:  “Please, please, please Lord—don’t let me miss my plane.”  Or you get a call from your sister, there’s something wrong with the baby:  “Help, Lord!”  Or you hear about the latest police shooting of a black man, and all you can do is cry out to the Lord in pain and anger.
  • “Arms of God” prayer, which asks the Lord for healing of all kinds.  This is the kind of prayer we often turn to—your child has a spot on her shoulder—it’s cancer; a childhood friend attempted suicide–again; a neighbor has a terrible accident.   Or, we pray for the church—struggling to connect with a new generation—we pray for healing and for hope.
  • But then there is a third kind of prayer; “Breakthrough” prayer, in which we ask God boldly to break through the current reality and bring us to a new future reality.  It is as if we are asking God to put extra oxygen into our own feeble human efforts.

In her work in Ohio for the Methodist Church, Sue has found their most powerful tool for bringing real and dramatic change to congregations is teaching “breakthrough prayer.”   Too often, our prayers are too timid, and our God is too small. 

Teaching churches to pray boldly for a powerful breakthrough brings new life to lukewarm congregations.  There is something Biblical about praying together as a church—the power that comes when, together, we trust God to bring about a future we cannot.  Citing Oswald Chambers, Sue testifies that just as food is fuel for our physical bodies; prayer is food for the spiritual body of Christ.  Retired Bishop Cho always said:  “There is no church vitality without spiritual vitality.”

Breakthrough prayer is about praying—and then acting—and praying again.  This pattern of trusting God to make a breakthrough, but then stepping up and taking action was central to the movement that King led.  Training in prayer was part of the rigorous process that anyone who wanted to march with Martin went through.  Potential marchers had to sign a covenant of how they would behave—and prayer was a core part of that discipline. Protestors had to be prepared to meet violence and hate and anger by turning the other cheek—with nonviolent resistance. 

In 2015, Rep. John Lewis returned to the Edmund Pettus Bridge to re-enact the Selma march.  Fifty-five years ago, he was so badly beaten that they feared for his life.  How do you resist returning violence for violence when a police dog charges and bites you?  How do you continue to march nonviolently when the fire hoses are turned on you?  You do it through prayer—lots and lots of prayer.  In our lesson from Acts this morning, we see Peter and John facing imprisonment and beatings through prayer.

I imagine that Martin Luther King, Jr practiced his own form of breakthrough prayer.  He dared to dream that one day, “justice would roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” But he didn’t just dream—he gathered a community of people to work and to fight until that dream was realized.  The great Jewish rabbi Abraham Heschel spoke of marching with Martin as “praying with my legs.”  Martin prayed; and acted; and prayed again.

Breakthrough prayer is like the King memorial—we look through the narrow slits, and see…far off in the distance, not the Jefferson Memorial, but the Kingdom of heaven.  And just as Martin Luther King, Jr became a stone of hope amidst a mountain of despair, our churches can become places of hope when we radically rely on God’s power.

So, I am wondering, what would happen here at Arlington Temple if we began to practice and to teach “breakthrough prayer.”  What would happen if we began dreaming dreams so big that only God could fulfill them? 

What would happen if this church began believing that God could indeed “breakthrough” our toughest and most worrisome reality?  What if?

In the Book of Acts, Peter and John speak boldly about Jesus, and are threatened with prison and beatings unless they cease.  But the apostles continue to preach and act boldly.  They pray, they act, and they pray again.  Hear again their prayer:

“And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness…When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.”  (Acts 4:29-31)

Breakthrough prayer invites us into a collective pattern of life of praying and acting with boldness.


Ruth & Naomi: Soul Friends

Guest preacher: Rev. Cathy Abbott

Scripture: Ruth 1:1-18

My younger son Tim delights me with his devotion to his first born, Lily.  There is just something about little ones that fills our hearts with joy and with hope in the future.  Tim’s wife, Alya, moved to the US from Russia when she was 10.  Her grandparents and elderly aunts speak primarily Russian.  And while her parents function very well in English at work, with their friends, and at home, they are most comfortable speaking Russian.  And so, Tim and Alya have decided to raise Lily to speak both Russian and English. 

When I asked Tim why they were teaching Lily Russian, he said it was all about relationships:  they want Lily to be able to communicate with her grandparents and other relatives in the language in which they are most comfortable expressing themselves.  For immigrant families, what to keep and what to shed of their “culture of origin” is an important source of identity and discernment.

In today’s world, 258 million people live in countries not of their birth:  19% of this total live in the US.  In N. American, 42% of the population growth from 2000-2015 was from migration.  Germany has taken in more than a million immigrants since 2015, many fleeing war and chaos in the Middle East and Africa.  When we visited S. Africa, we were amazed at how the local African population resented the migration of Africans from other nations, fearing they were “taking our jobs.”  The world-wide pandemic has created even greater stressed on immigration.  Many Asian Americans in the US report greater discrimination and racial slurs since the pandemic began—even though epidemiologists have found that the primary strains of the virus came to us from Europe—not China.  How many here came as immigrants or have parents who came as immigrants?  (show of hands) You know this story well. 

Today’s story is a story of immigration.  Naomi and her husband left their home in Bethlehem because there was a famine in the land.  They immigrated to Moab.  Ironic, since Bethlehem means “the house of bread” and was renowned for its grain. Most Israelites considered Moab to be a place of death and destruction.  But when you are in the middle of a famine, you do what you must do.  In Moab, Naomi’s husband died.  Then, her two sons married two local girls, Orpah and Ruth.  Life went on. 

Naomi’s life was hard:  first one son died, then the other.  Suddenly, Naomi has no one but her daughters-in-law.  She urges them to stay in Moab and make a new life for themselves in their homeland:

“Go back each of you to your mother’s house.  May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.  9The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.”  Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud.  (Ruth 1:8-9)

Naomi was a stranger in a strange land.  In ancient Israel, names have meanings.  Naomi means “sweet.”  But, whatever sweetness there was in Naomi’s life had shriveled up and died.  Naomi decides to go home—and her daughters-in-law offer to come with her.  She discourages them:

Turn back, my daughters, go your way…No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the LORD has turned against me!  (Ruth 1:12-13)

Sweet Naomi has become bitter.  Bitter people often choose isolation; they choose lonely roads. Naomi plans to return home alone—to Bethlehem—where the famine—the physical famine—has ended.  But the spiritual and emotional famine in Naomi’s life–the one that took her husband and her two sons– has made bitterness her ongoing companion.  This bitterness of heart and spirit now causes Naomi to push away the only family she has—Orpah and Ruth.     

Naomi feels cut off from her family—because there are no children—and from her homeland far away.  At such a time as this—some word must be spoken.  Ruth knew that.  She speaks a powerful word to Naomi:

 “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!   Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried.   May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”  (Ruth 1:16-17)

Ruth decides to leave her homeland and accompany Naomi back to Bethlehem.  For Ruth, Naomi is “family” and she will leave all she knows so that Naomi will not be alone.  Through her decision to accompany Naomi to a place she’s never been, Ruth creates a future for Naomi.  Ruth reminds Naomi her love. What Ruth is saying is, Naomi, your people ARE my people; your God IS my God; therefore, where you go, I will go, where you stay I will stay.  I am here for you!

Naomi thanks her daughters-in-law for their “kindness.”  The Hebrew word hesed that is translated kindness here is actually far more expansive.  A better translation would be “fierce covenant loyalty.”  Mama-bear kind of love—or a kind of positive “Tiger Mom.”  This word describes the nature of God.  It describes moments of grace, undeserved love and mercy.  Naomi is saying that in the kindness of Ruth and Orpah, she has experienced the love of God.  Even though Ruth and Orpah are from another culture, and were raised in a different way, Naomi (a foreigner) experienced the love of God through them.  Who has shown you this kind of love?

Ruth and Naomi set off for Bethlehem together.  It is here we can see the depth of sadness that has enfolded Naomi.  As she enters Bethlehem, some old friends see her on the road.  “Are you Naomi?” they ask. 

She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.  I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”  (Ruth 1:20-21)

Naomi is in such deep despair, she tells her friends to call her “Mara,” which means bitterness.  This once sweet woman has taken on a new identity—a woman bitterly disappointed by life and by her God.  This is the story of many immigrants—they travel to a new land, fleeing persecution, fleeing famine, fleeing war, or simply seeking a better life.  But that new land does not always become the “promised land,” does it?  Bitterness can come and inhabit our hearts when life disappoints us. 

When we are unmoored, and bitterness eats away at us, we can end up in a “far country” –like the Prodigal Son.  At such times, we are sorely in need of companions to journey with us, to guide us.  I wonder what lessons we can learn from the story of Ruth and Naomi?  Let us see what happens when Ruth becomes the immigrant, and Naomi the guide:

So, Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab.  They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.  (Ruth 1:22)

This is a foreshadowing.  The Lord is going to use Ruth’s adaptation to the culture of Israel to bring a harvest into both Naomi’s and Ruth’s lives. 

Ruth and Naomi are both widows—they have no way to sustain themselves.  Ruth is a stranger and doesn’t know the Israelite culture and ways.  So, Naomi instructs Ruth on how things work.  She sends Ruth to ask permission from the landowner Boaz to glean the grain that falls to the ground during the harvest. 

Allowing widows and the poor to glean the “leftovers” from the harvest was one way that ancient Israelites helped  those in need in their community.  Another way the community provided for widows was that the closest male relative could marry the widow and purchase, or “redeem” the property owned by the dead son. 

Thus a “redeemer” is someone who buys back something; someone who frees someone from captivity or oppression. 

When Naomi sent Ruth to Boaz the landowner, she knew that he was a potential Redeemer.  Boaz was in the family line and could redeem her son’s name and property.   Ruth’s fierce covenant love for Naomi brought them both back to Bethlehem—but Naomi’s instruction of Ruth led to a future for both of them.  How?

Well, Ruth gets to know Boaz as she gleans in his fields.  Boaz negotiates to become her “redeemer”—marrying Ruth and purchasing her husband’s property.  They wed and have a child.  What we discover is that Ruth’s covenant loyalty to Naomi actually became the path to redemption, a way out of the famine and their vulnerability, to a great harvest. 

When Alya’s parents came to California 25 years ago, friends from Russia had paved the way.  Their friends helped them find jobs, told them where to rent an apartment (near good schools, the grocery story, and the bus line), and helped them learn “new ways” so that they could thrive in a new land.

Can you think of people who helped your parents, or you become “at home” in a strange land?  Can you think of someone who helped you figure out the norms of a new school when you moved as a child?  Or when you went to college—a new friend who made this new place “home” to you?  Someone who, just like Naomi, schooled you in not just how to survive, but thrive in a new place?

What is interesting to me about the story of Ruth and Naomi is that it is Naomi (the one more familiar with Israelite culture) who becomes the “guide” for helping Ruth navigate a future for them both—a future with hope.  This is in line with our usual way of thinking:  it is the older generation who instructs the younger.  But notice what is important here is that Naomi is familiar with the culture, and Ruth who needs to learn.  Naomi emigrates twice—once leaving home to go to Moab, once returning home from Moab. 

As she returns to Bethlehem—“the house of bread,” she is able to teach Ruth how to be “fed”—not just spiritually (by gleaning); and not just emotionally (by marrying).  Naomi teaches Ruth how to be “fed” by the Lord.  She is a blessing to Ruth, and in return, Ruth blesses her with a “son.”  The younger woman and the older woman mutually bless each other.  They become more than “in-laws”:  you might even call them “soul friends.”

So, I am wondering, who do you know who needs such a friend?  It could be someone who has suffered numerous losses—like Naomi.  It could be a new co-worker, who doesn’t yet “know the ropes.”  It could be a non-Christian, who will not know peace until their hearts rest in God.

Lily is older now.  But, I love how my son Tim is learning Russian so that both he and Lily will be able to have a stronger relationship with Alya’s parents and grandparents.  This “learning the language” is a sign to me of his “fierce covenant loyalty” to his wife and to her family.

Increasingly as churches in American, we have to “learn the language” of a new group of people—our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends:  people who have not been brought up in the church, who stopped going when they went to college, who do not know Jesus.  Who here knows someone like that (show of hands)?  Who amongst them might need you to become their “soul friend”?  For such people to come to know the living God, we need to learn how to speak their language—and to “translate” live-giving faith in ways that new people can enter into a relationship with the living God.  Your knowledge of the ways of God could provide the gift—not of earthly sustenance (of a husband, of food, of shelter…or an heir)—but of eternal sustenance—life with God.  As ATUMC plans to move off-site when our building is torn down and rebuilt, Pastor Allie has challenged us to think about how we can reach out to new neighbors in new ways.

What the story of Ruth and Naomi teaches us is that this challenge of evangelism is all about relationships:  relationship with God and relationship with new people who do not yet know the Lord.

When Ruth’s baby is born, no one is more delighted than….Naomi!  Indeed, the women of the village say:

“A son has been born to Naomi.” (Not to Ruth, but to Naomi!)  They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.  (Ruth 4:17)

Now David was the famous King David—and who is King David’s most famous descendent?  [Jesus]  And Jesus is our… Redeemer!

Out of Naomi’s bitterness—out of all the losses and brokenness in her life, sweetness returns when Ruth bears a son!  Even though her husband and her two sons die, through Ruth’s fierce covenant loyalty–Naomi now has a “son.”  The women say to Naomi:

Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a next-of-kin…He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.  (Ruth 4:14-15)

And what brings about this transformation from death to life for Naomi?  A decision by Ruth to travel to an unknown country so that Naomi would not be alone:  a new life that began with these powerful words:

Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.   (Ruth 1:16)

With this commitment, Ruth and Naomi became more than in-laws—they became soul friends.  Where are you being called to go and do likewise? 


Essential: Witness

Scripture: Acts 2:42-47

Back in England in the 1730s, a young Anglican priest and failed missionary named John Wesley began preaching in the streets and the fields. He preached about grace and he preached about holiness, and most importantly he preached about Jesus and how the path to salvation was open through him. People came to hear him by the thousands, at least as his journal tells the story. They heard his message and they believed, and then they asked a question: “What next?”

This was the beginning of the Methodist movement: a network of small groups where people held each other accountable to living out their newfound faith in their lives.  Faith, Wesley believed, shouldn’t just change you on the inside, but on the outside too.

17 hundred and 30 years beforehand, another crowd had gathered, this time in Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of Shavuot (Pentecost.) An ex-fisherman named Peter preached from the window of an upper room. He preached grace and he preached about God’s power and most importantly he preached about Jesus and how the path to salvation was open through him. And people stopped to listen, and they heard his message and believed.

In the story as we have it, at least, they never explicitly ask the question “What next?” But we do hear what comes next. “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This first verse describing the very first post-Pentecost church should be familiar to you now if you’ve been following along with this sermon series. What strikes me is that the first thing the new believers do when they hear the Gospel is they get to work. When people are convicted, there’s no time to waste getting started.

These new believers hear the story of Jesus and their lives change. It’s not just a matter of finding inner peace or joy, though there is joy to be found. Their lives change not just on the inside but on the outside: The patterns of their day. Who they understand to be their family. What they do with their property. What they devote themselves to.

We’ve spent the last five weeks focusing on this passage from Acts, asking what it has to tell us about the essentials of being the church, both then and now – and especially now as we are being forced to think about being church in new ways. We’ve talked about worship, teaching and learning, communion (both with a big C and a little one), prayer, and justice. These are the practices that define the church’s mission and identity. And when I first planned this series, I was going to leave it at that, because that seemed to sum up what they did. But I realized I had missed one part of this passage: “They praised God and had the goodwill of all the people. [My CEB translation says ‘Demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone.’] And day by day, the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

They demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. And once again, people responded, and they changed their lives too, and they demonstrated God’s goodness to others. And day by day, the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

The aspect that I missed when I first planned out this series was witness – because the believers did all these things, they worshiped and learned more and ate together and prayed together and shared what they had, and they also didn’t keep it to themselves.

As we’re rethinking these days what it looks like to be the church, maybe we have an opportunity here to think about our own witness to the wider world.

On the one hand, our worship and fellowship and study are now more accessible to many people than they ever have been before. Anyone, from anywhere, as long as they have an internet connection, can come learn about /Jesus and the Bible and how we live out our faith/ for themselves.

And on the other hand, we can now no longer count on someone seeing our building in the middle of Rosslyn and wandering in, as visitors and newcomers to the area have done probably since we’ve had a building. Some of them would come and go, but over time, some would make their home here, just as most of you decided at one time to do. That particular scenario is not going to happen for a while now, and it makes me wonder how much we have perhaps been content to let our building be our witness for us.

So what next? When we can’t use our building in the same way, it becomes even more important to be God’s people in the world.

Even that might seem harder these days. We are in our homes more and in the world less. And still now, all around us, there is death and fear. There is inequality and racism that threatens lives. There is loneliness and longing. All around us, there are people looking for community, and purpose, and hope.

Do we have something to offer them?

How might we use our new more digital reality for good, here? I was excited a couple weeks ago when a friend of mine who is local but not associated with our church sent me a screen shot of a post from a Facebook group she was in. “I’d like to invite you to our church,” the post said, and shared the description of worship for that week from our Arlington Temple Facebook page. I said yes! Someone is doing their job! Maybe you know someone a particular sermon would speak to. Videos are all there on Facebook and our church website; send them along. There is opportunity here.

And still, what made an impression on those newest believers who joined the earliest church wasn’t a fancy website or well targeted Facebook ads. Those things are tools to help us in our witness, but they are not our witness. Instead, for the early church, what happened is that people saw what they were doing. They saw them praising God and being together and God working wonders in their midst. They saw them sharing tables and sharing possessions. And they said, something new is happening here. And we want to be a part of it. The community itself WAS their witness to the story of Jesus. How they lived their lives and lived them together WAS their witness to what God had done and was still doing among them.

Back at the beginning of the year, back when no one knew what 2020 had in store, the Christian writer Brian McLaren wrote a blog post with three New Year’s resolutions for pastors. Number one was: “Smoke what you’re selling.” (His words!) “In other words,” he said, “be sure that you actually enjoy the abundant life you are proclaiming to others.”[1]

That question stops me in my tracks sometimes, especially these days, when so much feels like stress and fear and burnout, and I think I am not alone in those things. And yet, if faith doesn’t make a difference in times like these, then when? Maybe there’s a question for all of us in that: are we experiencing abundant life, together? And then, from that – are we demonstrating abundant life to others around us – not because we need to sell something, but because it’s true? And if not, then how? What’s next?

We’ll be out of our building, worship-wise, for a while now. But the church was never a building. The first church didn’t even have one, at least not their own. There’s a world around us waiting for some hope. There are streets, and parks, and stores, and people on the other end of screens. They’re looking for abundant life. We can offer what we have. These are hard times, but God is love and Jesus is Lord and the Holy Spirit is moving among us, and Pentecost can happen all over again.