First Congregational Church
July 17, 2016
9th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Abbott said, “Do you have any two-watt, 4-volt light bulbs?” Costello said, “For what?” Abbott said, “No, two.” Costello said, “Two what?” Abbott said, “Yes.” Costello said, “No.’
Little five year old Ole asked his mother if he could sleep with jumper cables under his pillow - because what five year old doesn’t ever ask that question? Ole’s mother said, “Okay, but you have to promise not to start anything.”
I was reading my hometown paper this week, and I noticed a couple things. In the section from the Sheriff’s department, it had an little blurb about an engineer that was putting sea water in his batteries without the boss knowing. He was arrested for salt-in-battery, but even though the charge wouldn't hold up, he is sitting in his cell serving two current sentences. I will say it again, Litchfield, MN was a great place to grow up! The other paper item was way at the bottom of the politics section. It said, “After suffering weak gain at the poles, the National Transistor Party has been trying to energize their base.
Since May, our sermon sojourn through the book of Acts has taken us through the whole Pentecost official church inauguration, the healings and teachings of the apostles, and the creation of a group called deacons, who were in charge of caring for the followers; from the helpless to the hungry. One of those first deacons, Stephen, was stoned for this assistance and his devotion to following the ways of Christ, making him the first martyr. But none of the apostles had been killed, until Acts, chapter 12.
It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. 2 He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. 3 When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. 4 After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.
6 The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. 7 Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.
8 Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. 9 Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10 They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.
11 Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen.”
12 When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. 13 Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer the door. 14 When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!”
15 “You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.”
16 But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. 17 Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this,” he said, and then he left for another place.
18 In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. 19 After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed.
Thank you, Peggy. For those of you wondering, the Festival of Unleavened Bread is also known as Passover, sort of like our interchangeable 4th of July and Independence Day. James is the first, actual apostle to be killed for his part in the whole Jesus scene. In fact, James and Judas’ suicide are the only two apostles’ death clearly mentioned in the Bible. Tradition and early historians tell us of the deaths of seven apostles, and we never do find out - definitively - what happened to John, Bartholomew and Simon.
Despite the apostolic necrological information - and yes - necrological is a real word, I fell in love with this passage when I read it again this week, despite it’s sad ending. Firstly, it’s probably as close to a sit-com as we will ever see in the Bible - Rhoda answering the door and leaving Peter there to tell everyone in the house, without inviting him in. In fact, with the actual name of Rhoda, I’d be willing to guess that there was at least one episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show that used that very scene with Rhoda Morgenstern.
And when the angel woke up Peter, I had to smile, too. For whatever reason, I heard the angel’s voice - with a sort of Brooklyn accent as he jabbed Peter in the side, “Hey Mac, git up.”
It’s interesting that this passage doesn’t make it into the lectionary - that three year, prescribed list of bible readings. That’s really too bad, because it leaves the less learned (me) having to do more of our own thinking in regards to insights and stuff that makes congregations go “oo” and “ah.”
The sentence that popped out this week was from verse 5: “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” I don’t know exactly what it meant, but just sound of “four squads of four soldiers each” tells you that Peter was a big threat to Herod. Although it didn’t seem likely that Peter was going to be released, the church prayed anyway. And now we know what happened after that.
We don’t know if it was the “minute” that the church prayed, “the hour,” or even “the day” the church prayed, but they were praying. We don’t know their exact words, or how close the actual details came to the actual prayers, but they were answered.
The Bible doesn’t tell us how many other prayers were offered up by those same people - prayers that may or may not have had eventual answers, but I’m sure they were just like so many other churches - in praying anyway. And just like always, sometimes we see our prayers answered and sometimes we don’t, even tho God always answers our prayers.
During the sharing of joys and concerns last week, we heard of a father’s prayers that had been answered regarding his daughter, prayers that had gone on for years, prayers that were sometimes shared by this congregation. This week, we heard that the years of prayers for another couple’s grandchild weren’t answered. In both cases, at some point in time, we had prayed for those individuals, even though many of you may have forgotten. Although the prayers were similar, they had very different endings - at least to our eyes, ears, hearts and minds. And this pastor had the audacity to use a sermon title, “Unappreciated Power” - especially this week - especially on the heels of the last months in terms of world events.
Part of the “unappreciated power” of our prayers is that they sometimes do end in miracles - miracles that happen right before human eyes. For those times, we can offer a truly-heartfelt prayer of thanks, and a big ol’ Go God!
Part of the “unappreciated power” of our prayers, tho, is what our prayers together do for our own selves. Just to be clear, our prayers ought not be solely about the good they do for us. But numerous Facebook posts and internet postings have boasted of the good that singing together in a group does for one’s mental and physical health. Studies have been done that reveal the similarity of heart rates when people are singing together - which is especially good for the anxious or depressed.
I don’t know of any studies, but my theory is that there is a similar phenomena that happens when we pray together - even silently. Our own, personal prayer, becomes greater as it reflects off the hearts of others, and our hearts fall more in line with one another than when we aren’t praying together. Maybe our prayers together are like mirrors that reflect off one another - light spreading light - seemingly invisible, but with great definition. How ever it plays out, that time when we share our joys and concerns and pray about them together is far, far more than catching up on what is going on around town.
But what if the church in Peter’s day hadn’t prayed for him? What if they took the overwhelming situation for face-value - that there was no hope? Where would Peter have landed? And what if we hadn’t joined with the father in praying for his daughter during the years? Would her situation have changed at all - ever? If we had never prayed for the granddaughter, even if it was only once or even twice, would we put our arms around the grandparents as tightly as if we had never heard of that granddaughter?
This “unappreciated power” of prayer - as it pertains to our individual and corporate hearts - is especially important during these days of what looks and sounds like chaos and insanity. More than ever, we need the unappreciated power of people who will share of themselves, as Jessie Grant shared with us last week, that when we are a little unhinged, we can be reminded that we are never truly unhinged from God. Especially in a day and age when it is so easy to see the divisions in our lives, we need to share our vulnerabilities so that we can siddle up next to those who are fearful, grieving, depressed, or any of the vast other negativities of this world, and share with that person or those individuals the fact that they are not the only ones to feel such things.
We can all appreciate the person who wants to keep it together while their world is falling apart. And I get the part about how hard it is to share something with someone when the tears are falling all over and the snot running out of the nose looking so unattractive. But I’m telling you, martyrdom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And we weren’t create to be martyrs. We were created to be drawn together by love and compassion to a greater good. So we should pray.
Gracious, wise and loving God, we thank you for the gift of prayer - the gift that is so much greater than we often realize. Help us, in the weeks ahead, to pray with renewed desire and intent, that we might truly become the people you see us to be. Remind us, in those prayers, that they are not just about us, but that they are important for us, too. For the miraculous and answered prayers within our ken, we are truly grateful. For the prayers that you answer out of our realization, thank you, too. And for the privilege that we have - as people of a living God - to speak to you at any time and any place, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.