preached on September 30, 2018
at First Church in Sterling
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Please pray with me in the words of our psalm this morning: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
Fred Rogers got up to deliver the invocational prayer at the Boston University graduation in 1992 when he was to receive one of his many honorary doctorates. The crowd, all of whom grew up with him in their living rooms, went absolutely wild with screaming and thundering applause. It was as if he was a rock star.
“Will you sing with me?” He said, and beckoned them to sit down. “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor, would you be mine? Could you be mine? It’s a neighborly day in this beauty wood, a neighborly day for a beauty, would you be mine? Could you be mine? I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you. I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you, so. Let’s make the most of this beautiful day, since we’re together we might as well say, “would you be mine, could you be mine, won’t you be my neighbor?” Thousands of graduates drowned out his voice with their joyful singing.
When they had quieted down, Fred Rogers told them a story about a young child drawing with crayons in a preschool classroom. The teacher came over to her and asked what she was drawing.
“I’m making a picture of God,” the girl said.
“How can that be?” The teacher said, “No-one knows what God looks like.”
The little girl said, “they will now!”
Then Fred Rogers asked the graduates to join him in prayer to the God of their understanding, and led the invocation.
I want to learn to pray like Fred Rogers.
Fred Rogers had a public television show when I was a child called Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. He was a man who made a whole generation of my peers feel safe, worthy and seen. He was the closest many of us came to a holy man; a saint in a red cardigan. He is the single most important reason our Pastor Megan was called to the ministry. Which makes sense since Fred Rogers, too, was called to the Presbyterian ministry to teach children all over the country their worth.
The reason he could do this so well was because he lived his entire life as a prayer.
Slowing down, taking time and appreciating silence were part of his daily disciplines. Fred Rogers woke up every morning at 5:00 am and read scripture. He prayed for all of his family and friends and the many people all over the world who asked him to pray for them— by name, including giving thanks for the saints long past. He continued his prayer practice during his 7:30 am daily swim. At the pool, he sang Jubilate Deo out loud (but not too loud) before his plunge into the chlorinated water, which he rose up out of like a daily baptism before heading to the office. He didn’t drink or smoke or eat meat, and he kept a strict 9:30 bedtime. He personally answered every piece of fan mail he ever got.
Fred brought his disciplines of slowing down, taking time and using silence onto his television show. He wanted to give children the safety that comes from routine. In other words, his show itself was a prayer for the children.
His call to ministry brought him to children’s television. He saw television as an opportunity to lead a love revolution starting with children, but he was not interested in evangelism. He did not mention God or Jesus on his secular show. Still, he considered the space between the television and the couch the children sat on to watch it to be holy ground. He said: “When I walk in that studio door each day, I say, ‘Dear God, let some word that is heard be Yours.’” Rogers didn’t pray that the children come to know Jesus, he prayed they would come to know how loved they were. Let them hear a word of Love today, he prayed. And then he told us: “it’s you I like. It’s not the things you wear, it’s not the way you do your hair, but its you I like. The way you are right now. The way down deep inside you. Not the things that hide you. Not your toys, they’re just beside you. But it’s you I like, It’s every part of you.”
There are so many ways to pray. I want to learn to pray like Mr. Rogers.
We’ve been hanging out with James and his epistle for the past few weeks.
In this passage that we read this morning, James seems more optimistic about the use of the tongue than he did two weeks ago, as long as we’re using it to pray. In fact, prayer seems to be James’ answer for everything. You’re happy? Pray. You’re sad? Pray. You’re sick? Pray. You feel bad about something you’ve done? Pray. “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” he says.
A lot of you have asked me over the years, “if prayer is so effective, why isn’t it working for me? Why isn’t it working for the world? Is it because I’m not righteous enough? Is it because we’re doing it wrong?”
In July of 2016 after the Pulse nightclub shooting, I was asked for an interview with Lex Thomas for the Sterling Meetinghouse News. She wanted me to talk about coping with despair in a troubled world. In my lament about the most recent and deadliest mass shooting at the time, she quoted me as saying “We organize prayer vigils, but prayer doesn’t work.”
Before I even received the newspaper in my mailbox to read my article, I received an email in my inbox from a good citizen from Shrewsbury:
Good morning –
I was reading the article “Coping with Despair in a Troubled World” from the recent edition of the Meetinghouse News and one of your comments had me questioning and I hope you could clarify. You said “We organize prayer vigils, but prayer doesn’t work” – Prayer doesn’t work? He asked. I don’t understand all the different doctrine when it comes to different denominations, but as the lead pastor of a Christian Church is that really what you believe?”
“Oh no,” I thought. “What have I done now?” I have a tendency to stick my foot in my mouth pretty much every day. For those of you who don’t know me, this is well-documented. Sometimes I do it in public. And now I, the Reverend Robin Bartlett, the Senior Pastor of the First Church in Sterling, told everyone in Central Massachusetts that prayer doesn’t work, which in addition to being really hopeless sounding, is also not a good way to drum up business.
His was only the first letter I received.
I put out an all-points bulletin to save my reputation and correct the record:
I said, “if prayer were *all it took* to end these mass shootings, and division in our nation and world, I have confidence that all of those things would be eradicated by now.
Because I have no doubt that we have prayed fervently and earnestly and with great reverence about evil and human atrocities for as long as humans have inhabited the earth. I have no doubt that God has heard our prayers--we have been literally begging God for peace. It is not for lack of praying that the world continues to be dangerous, and that people continue to be oppressed.
So here's how I think prayer works. Ultimately, I don't think prayer changes God. God is unchanging. But, I do think that prayer changes people, and people change things. And it is time for the people to start changing things.”
The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. It can transform the world. We, too, can live our lives as a prelude to—or an outcome of—prayer. We, too, can live our lives in relationship to love.
I want to address those of us who don’t believe we are righteous enough, or have faith enough to pray.
What is significant about the phrase “prayer of the righteous” as James sees it, is the experience of one individual, the prophet Elijah. In his case, his prayer was instrumental in shutting the heavens. Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that the phrase has come to be associated largely, if not exclusively, with dramatic, miracle-like events.
This misses what James is trying to tell us. The reason he uses Elijah as an example is not because of the miracle he prayed for, and the fact that it worked. It is because Elijah himself is nothing special. He is a “human being like us,” James says. He is similarly too busy and too tired. He's sick of being stuck in traffic on route 2 on his commute to work. Elijah’s drinking his extra large Dunkin’s to keep his eyes open on the soccer field on Saturday morning. He, too, has doubts and sometimes doesn’t believe. Elijah’s praying is used as an example because if Elijah can do it, any one of us can do it.
All we have to do is believe in the power of love, ask for something, refuse to be attached to the answer we want, and then act in service to the love that holds us all.
I’m sure some of you wondered if I would say anything today about the Kavanaugh hearings today. I don’t want to say a lot, because I’m not ready to. Orienting our lives toward prayer means listening for a word of Love when there has been far too much talking. But I do want to ask you to join me in prayer. I want to ask you to join me in prayer for our lawmakers from all branches of government. For every person in that hearing room. For Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, for Judge Kavenaugh, for their families who have endured death threats; who have been through so much.
I want you to join me in prayer for the survivors of sexual assault all over this country and the world. Dear God, let the words they hear be Your’s. May it remind them of their worth.
I will say this. It’s too bad that this hearing is happening in the context of Partisan political theater because what I know from being a woman and being your pastor is that there is nothing partisan about sexual assault. Almost every woman and non-binary person I have ever known from every part of the political and ideological spectrum; from every race and religion and walk of life has her own story. And so do many men. Too many of you do, too. So I want to say this to you: I see you, I hear you, I will believe you, me too. If you need to talk, I will listen. I will pray.
Prayer does not preclude action, it precedes action. Prayer changes people and people change things.
Fred Rogers says this: The world needs a sense of worth, and it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile. If you and I want to learn how to pray, maybe all we have to do is continually try to orient our lives toward that which has worth. You are worthwhile to God. Each and every one of the people who surround you in this room are worthwhile to God, and each and every person you encounter outside this building are worthwhile to God. Let’s pray that we all know it. Let’s pray a world with a sense of worth into being.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.