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.
“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.