Second Sunday after the Epiphany – Annual Parish Meeting
January 17, 2021
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17
The year was 1559. England had experienced decades of violence, riots, and political crises. England had gone from Catholic to Protestant back to Catholic and back to Protestant again. There were serious questions about legitimate authority. It was not an easy time with so many voices clamoring for so many different truths. But sometimes the most complex problems call for the simplest solutions.
So in 1559 Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity. In short, the law said that everybody had to use the Book of Common Prayer. That’s it. When people came to church on Sunday they were all going to say the same prayers – whether you were the Queen of England or Mr. and Mrs. Nobody; from the slums of London to the poorest little village. It didn’t matter. The prayers of the church were to be uniform. But it wasn’t draconian. See, what’s so clever about the Book of Common Prayer is that allowed for diversity. If you were more of a Catholic kind of person, you could wear all your priestly vestments and do all your rituals. If you were more of a Protestant kind of person, you could get all fired up about preaching and bible reading. Both of those schools of thought were welcomed. What mattered, is that the people prayed together. And it’s been that way since. As Episcopalians we are the recipients of that tradition. This is who we are; we are a diverse body of people who are bound together not by shared beliefs, or by shared ideology, or by ethnicity, but by prayer. This, above all else, is what makes us Episcopalians. Prayer and worship.
For us at Holy Comforter, that is how we are going to focus our energy in 2021, our Year of Prayer. We will commit to prayer, both in public and in private; we will pray silently and aloud; we will pray for our world, for our Church, for each other, and for ourselves. We will be getting back to the core of who we are, a people of prayer.
Since 2014, we have kicked off our theme for the year at our annual parish meeting. We’ve had our Years of Vision, Commitment, Gratitude, Joy, Community, Abundance, Digging Deeper. And now prayer. We’re going to teach classes about prayer, we’re going to have prayer groups, we’re going to help you in your prayer life, we’re going to pray for each other, and you’re going to pray for your own life of faith. Along with the Vestry, the staff, and the leadership of this parish, we want to hone in on what defines us, and that’s prayer. Episcopalians are always tempted to define ourselves by other things – we try to define ourselves by stances on social issues. We try to define ourselves by making bad jokes about not having to handle snakes. Or we pretend like we’re just snobby Methodists or like we’re relaxed Catholics. But that is not who we are. Since the beginning, we have been a people of prayer. Even here at Holy Comforter, so much of our recent life together has been about the building project. But above all, this new church building is a house of prayer. This year we are recommitting to who we are.
2020 was so many things. On a dime, we had to stop so much of the life of our church. In-person worship was suspended. We stopped our bible studies, our group meetings; we stopped showing up at our elementary school and our assisted living communities. We changed Sunday School, we cancelled Vacation Bible School and our mission trips. We had to start doing new things. We learned how to worship together on YouTube and Facebook Live. We had to learn how to unmute ourselves on Zoom. We figured out how to open a church safely and how to do a pledge campaign online. I’ve said it a hundred times and I’ll say it again – thank you for your resiliency and your flexibility and your grace. And please join me in thanking our staff, our Vestry, and our Reopening Task Force. It was ironic? Providential? that last year was our Year of Digging Deeper because all of you did just that.
But this year calls for something different. Speaking personally at least, I’ve been able to take a deep breath after Christmas and wrap my mind around what’s next. As we “dimmed the lights” on much of what we did at church in 2020, my gut tells me this year will be about turning the lights back up. And we’re going to need prayer and guidance from the Holy Spirit to figure all that out. See, I think two interconnected things are going to happen. Some of us will be itching to get things going as fast as we can. Some of us will be hesitant, for a long time, to do much of anything outside our homes. The only way we’re going to navigate that divide is by praying for each other; by truly, honestly, and graciously asking the Spirit of the Living God to inspire the other people who make us nervous. And as we have done, we will continue to pray for each other in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I ask you to be open and honest, ask other people to pray for you. It takes a lot of vulnerability to do that, but we all are here to pray for each other. If only we would ask. Holding each other in prayer is one of the greatest gifts we can give each other. So the first thing we’re going to do is to pray for our church. And then we’re going to pray for each other.
The third thing we’re going to pray for is our world. Now, let’s be clear here about the purpose of prayer. Prayer is not telling God how to run the world. Prayer is not about turning the world into your own image. No, we pray to God, “thy will be done.” I’ll often counsel people to pray “about” something rather than “for” something. In other words, you can simply lift the world up to God in you prayers. Pray about the world. And as one of our parishioners so elegantly says, the simplest prayer is, “O God, you know.” You don’t have to tell God what to do, you don’t have to worry about having the right words. But as a Christian, I believe that we must offer the world up in prayer to the Loving and Almighty God. We’re going to pray for this world.
And finally, we’re going to pray for ourselves. Now, I know that can sound a little self serving. “Aren’t we Christians after all? Shouldn’t we be praying for others? Isn’t praying for ourselves too self-centered?” Rather, if we are not praying for ourselves then we won’t have any spiritual gas in the tank to do much of anything else. This year I ask each of you to recommit yourselves to praying about your own life with Christ. When you sit down to eat, give thanks to God for the food that is provided. When you lie down at night, thank God for a place to sleep and commend your soul to God. When you have a decision to make, ask the Holy Spirit to inspire you. When you make a mistake, confess your sins. If you find yourself with a spare few moments during the day, don’t mindlessly scroll through your phone. Take the time to pray. Sure, the Lord God already knows us better than we do. As the psalm says, “Indeed there is not a word on my lips, but you, O Lord, know it altogether” (139:3). But it is time to be bold in our prayers. If we aren’t praying to the Lord God, then we’ll end up praying to the other gods and other lords of this world.
In our Year of Prayer we are going to pray for our church, pray for each other, pray for the world, and pray for ourselves. We will pray in private and in public. We will pray with words and with “sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). We will pray in music, in liturgy, and in silence. We will pray as a church family and we will pray by ourselves. And in this, we will rediscover our roots as Episcopalians, as Christians, as children of God, in this year and in all years. For in many ways, it is like any other tumultuous time. 1559. 1776. 1861. 1968. And now 2021. From that history, from our history, we can take great comfort that we, as the Body of Christ, have been through these times before and we will go through them again with prayer. As Jesus promised his disciples, he will be with us until the end of the age. So our response, in this time and in any time, is not of anxiety or fear. No, the proper Christian response is always prayer. And in our 2021 Year of Prayer, we will not be defined by all the identities the world tries to place on us. We will not be defined by all the other forces trying to get our attention. We will not be defined by our differences. No, we will be a people, a parish, of common prayer.