The audio of this sermon will be available on the Christ Church website once I get to reliable internet access… I hope.
In the fall of 2006, I began my final year of seminary. After two years of not quite fitting in, I finally found my groove. My classes were enjoyable, I had made some life-long friendships, and by then, I was even serving as Student Body President. Cassie was happy at her work, she had good friends, and everything seemed to be running smoothly, until the evening of September 26th. Our senior class retreat was scheduled for the next day, so this Thursday night was particularly hectic. We did some grocery shopping, filled up the gas tank, and stopped at the liquor store; fulfilling all the requirements of a seminary class retreat. It was getting late, and so we grabbed an ill-advised dinner from Taco Bell. Not long after that, it started. The stomach ache grew and grew, until I couldn’t find peace. I spent the night tossing and turning. In bed, on the couch, into the office, back to bed. I had never felt so uncomfortable from a stomach ache before. After a mostly sleepless night, and too many symptom checks on WebMD, I decided I should get looked at.
Cassie and I arrived at the INOVA Hospital Emergency Room at about 7:30 Friday morning. After getting checked in, I called the Dean of Students’ office to let her know where I was. As I came out of the CT Scan room, Marge was standing right outside the door, where she prayed for me, right there in the hallway. Immediately, things began to feel better. No, the pain didn’t leave. There was no miraculous healing. Yet, I distinctly remember something changing in that moment. By about noon, it was clear that my appendix, not Taco Bell, had betrayed me, and it would have to come out. Cassie made the requisite phone calls, and soon, the number of people praying for me began to grow exponentially: family members, the student body at VTS, my field ed. parish in Potomac, Maryland, my sponsoring parish in Lancaster, Cassie’s church in Grove City, my Bishop, and the clergy of Central Pennsylvania. Prayers were going up across the eastern seaboard, and despite a five and a half hour wait for an operating room, Cassie and I both later reflected on the profound peace we felt in the midst of the uncertainty. Yes, an appendectomy is considered “minor-surgery,” but minor surgery only happens to someone else. I found myself in such a peaceful place that sometime, mid-afternoon, I fell asleep, right in the middle of the giant, curtain lined, pre-op waiting room.
As I’ve talked with Mother Becca this week, I’ve been reminded of my appendectomy story. While her surgery wasn’t anything close to “minor,” she’s expressed to me on a few different occasions how at peace she feels in the midst of ambiguity. Even as the first round of pathology results came back inconclusive, her mood was calm, noting that maybe taking things one step at a time would prove easier. On Wednesday, when I checked on how she was doing the day after her eight-hour surgery, her response was Spirit-filled, “I have always believed in the power of prayer,” she wrote via text message, “but now I have experienced it in a deeper way than ever before. I’m grateful for this as much as I’m grateful for the abundance of people praying for me.” These stories, among dozens of others that I’ve experienced in my ministry, are all the proof I need to believe the truth of Paul’s encouraging words to the church in Philippi. As Paul finishes his letter, he recapitulates several themes in quick succession. His words, which are familiar to many, recounted in the comfortable blessing from the Rite I service of Holy Eucharist, are words that I hold close to me in times of uncertainty and fear; times like those we are experiencing in our congregation, in our nation, and even in the world.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” These aren’t instructions for a self-help manual that will lead you to “your best life now.” They aren’t meant to make you feel guilty when you do worry. Instead, they are the very real reminder that only God can bring peace in the midst of disquietude. Yes, Paul’s mood is imperative. His verbs are commandments, not suggestions, but they are commandments made knowing full well that we cannot keep them on our own. Paul knows this as well as anyone. The Letter to the Philippians was written by Paul while in a Roman prison. His missionary journeys had been successful, but several of the churches he founded along the way were riddled with strife. Many questioned the authenticity of his claim for apostleship. For various reasons, Paul knew what it was like to live in uncertainty and fear, and yet, he wrote with conviction, that the way of Christ’s followers is a way of joy, free from anxiety, and full of thankfulness and peace.
How could he be so sure? How can we find that kind of peace that surpasses all understanding? The answer seems to lay right in the middle of this passage. It is the answer I found in my appendectomy story, and the answer Becca is experiencing right now. It is the power of prayer. “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Prayer is tricky thing. The tradition teaches us that God is immutable, and that our prayers do not change the will of God, and yet the Scriptures tell of God’s openness to change. An obvious example is Abraham and God bartering back and forth about the destruction of the city of Sodom. The people of Sodom had failed to show hospitality to the stranger, and for failing to live into the most basic commandment of loving their neighbor, God planned to wipe them off the map. Abraham balked, questioning God’s willingness to smite the righteous with the unrighteous. “What if you find fifty righteous there? Will you still destroy the city?” God relents, he will not unleash his wrath if he finds fifty righteous. Abraham negotiates God down to forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, and all the way to ten. It seems that prayer can have an impact on the will of God.
The hard reality, however, is that the answer to our prayers rarely happens as we would wish. In the end, Sodom was still destroyed. Despite all the people praying for me that Friday afternoon, my appendix still had to be removed. There was no miraculous healing, but there was peace, and that, is what Paul is promising on behalf of God here at the end of his letter to the Philippians. When we pray for the needs of another, we create a connection with God, but it doesn’t stop there. In those prayers, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we connect with those for whom we pray. Hundreds, if not thousands of people, were present to Becca in her hospital room this week, as their prayers rose to heaven and their compassion and love made its way to Vanderbilt Hospital. The peace that surpasses all understanding comes when the saints of God gather around one of their own in need, and I promise you, based on my experience, that peace will guard your heart and your mind and bring peace against all uncertainty.
So, pray. Pray without ceasing. Not just for Becca, but for Christ Church and all those on our parish prayer list. Pray for our nation and its leaders. Pray for Bowling Green, Warren County, for our schools, for our continued growth, and for those who find themselves in need. Make your requests known to God, with a healthy dose of thanksgiving, and the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will be present to us all, guarding our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus, and leading us to joy that is beyond all measure. Prayer works, my friends. I’ve seen it. I’ve felt it. I’ve lived it. And you can too. Amen.