February 19, 2017

Prayer is Communal

Colossians 4:2-6
“2 Keep on praying and guard your prayers with thanksgiving. 3 At the same time, pray for us also. Pray that God would open a door for the word so we can preach the secret plan of Christ—which is why I’m in chains. 4 Pray that I might be able to make it as clear as I ought to when I preach. 5 Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. 6 Your speech should always be gracious and sprinkled with insight so that you may know how to respond to every person.”

When I was in second grade, my mother bought me The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. It quickly became one of my favorite books. It is a humorous satire of the famous tale that, like many Bible stories, we read to kids as if the horrific details don’t exist. The wolf, fighting a cold and looking for sugar, goes to the houses of two of the pigs and accidentally sneezes the houses down. Seeing a side of ham at each place, he does not want to waste a meal. As funny as the story is, it reminds us of the same thing the original does – building material matters.

We build a lot of things in our lives. We build knowledge through school; we build homes to shelter our families; we build life savings and retirement and legacy. Through each of those examples, we consequently build something else: community.

When I was in elementary school, I built a community with friends who were smart like me. In high school, I built a community of friends with common interests. In middle school…I survived.

In graduate school, I was an adult. The community I built in school dissipated, as they often do, but those who stayed in Tennessee became my new community. When I joined the Tennessee Conference, I continued to build on that as a potential community I would have for the rest of my life.

In all of these examples, members of the community came and went, depending on a variety of circumstances, but that which holds it all together was effort. The friends I still see and invest in are the ones I put effort to invest in. Many of us were brought together through common experience, and we will always have that, but it takes extra effort after the common bonds break to hold on to that sense of community.

Today’s topic is communal prayer, but we have to first deal with the word communal. Around here, community is more about blood than anything else. Many of the folks you would consider to be “your people” you were bonded with since childhood. Think about who you sit with in church. Those of you who have family here sit with them. That’s normal. But is that what church is about?

It isn’t supposed to be. When Jesus calls his disciples in Matthew, they ask him if they can wait so that they can bury their relatives, who we expect to be of some considerable age or infirmity. Jesus somewhat harshly responds, “let the dead bury the dead.” While that may shock you, he isn’t necessarily telling them to ignore family. He is telling them that their new family – their family of faith – supersedes their blood relations.

After many years in church, I have learned that our faith family is very important, but it still occurs in the same realms as family and friends. There is a hierarchy of people we choose to spend time with depending upon the strengths of bond between them. In cases where churches grow, those attending are willing to continually view new members as part of the group. In those cases where churches are in decline, you tend to find congregants who welcome new members with open arms into worship, but they do not involve themselves in new members’ lives unless they already knew them from some other place.

Building relationships that will strengthen the community requires a number of things. First, it requires openness. If we are not open to new people, we cannot grow in number or in faith. Jesus didn’t say to only welcome those who are like you. Additionally, with a golden rule that says to love your neighbor as yourself, it would seem that excluding others is the same as excluding ourselves. If we are excluded, we cannot grow in community.

In addition to openness, building relationships in a community requires patience. When push comes to shove, you have to be willing to give second chances. You have to try and try again to let people live up to their potential. Holding people to high standards and giving them little chance to grow leaves us with tiny communities of high achievers, and no outsider wants to be a part of that.

Finally, it takes love. Communities of faith are built around love, because love is what makes communities of faith worthwhile. If we build community around common interests and skills, they may be enjoyable, but they would also be shallow. I can talk all day about Georgia football, but that’s a fan club, not a community.

It takes all three of these – openness, patience, and love – to pray honest prayers for others. Prayer in communities is a selfless act on behalf of the whole. We have to give up our own personal wants and preferences if we are praying for everybody.

In creating a vision for our church, we have to be willing to pray for each other often, even when we don’t see eye to eye on what that vision should be. Everyone has to give up little details to have a common goal, because none of us thinks exactly alike. We all have dreams or desires of what the church should be, and that takes prayer to navigate.

That is why today’s short passage from Colossians is so important to us now. Competing values in the early church threatened its existence and halted its growth at times. We have to pursue the common goal of living like Christ and making disciples if we are going to grow as a faith community. We don’t have a choice but to pray for one another or we risk excluding ourselves and disappointing God.

I know what I want to see in this community, but my job isn’t to tell you what the path should be. I am here to facilitate the process of deciding who we are and how we are going to build relationships that will grow the church in discipleship and in love of God and neighbor. We need that vision, because a church without a vision goes back to old habits of caring about just those we want to be with – our family and friends. When everyone in those groups leaves or dies, so goes the church. So goes the community.

Do we want to see this community grow? Are we willing to embrace our family of faith and all the members of that family that are not yet here? Do we even embrace everyone who is here? When we meet next month to start thinking about what we want this church to accomplish, we cannot stop at “a place where our families can come for generations.” We cannot stop at “where we come to worship on Sunday.” We have to press on by praying for what God wants; we have to pray that those who are inspired by God be given all the attention we can; we have to pray that we reach the lost and the lonely, the poor and the needy, the forgotten and the overlooked.

We have to pray for this community, because it is the best thing we could ever hope to have.

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