May 29th, 2022 homily on Acts 16:16-34 by Pastor Galen
Are Thoughts and Prayers Enough?
This week has been an incredibly difficult week for school students, parents and teachers, and anyone else in our society who cares deeply about children. The horrific mass shooting that took place at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas earlier this week is one of a long line of mass shootings. 214 mass shootings in the US this year alone, and 27 school shootings with injuries or deaths this year.
Our hearts broke as we heard the news of the children and teachers who were killed, as well as those who were injured. Our hearts grieve for those who lost loved one.
For me, the tragedy felt very close to home when the following day we received news that our own children’s school was put on lockdown due to a threat of violence that my kids’ school received the day after the shooting in Texas. Children had to hide in bathrooms and closets, some children even sending goodbye texts to their parents. Fortunately the threat was not carried out.
When it comes to tragedies like the one that took place at Robb Elementary, it’s difficult for us to know how to respond appropriately. The massacre in Texas has of course resurfaced debates in our society about gun control, with pro gun lobbyists proclaiming that guns are not the problem. The problem, they say, is with people, and they argue that we actually need more “good” people with guns if we’re going to stop by the “bad” guys. Those on the other side proclaim that there should be at least as many regulations for gun owners as we have for people who drive cars, and that if we really loved our children more than we love our guns then we would do everything within our power to try to prevent the type of violence that we saw earlier this week.
The tragedy has also resurfaced a debate – at least on my Facebook news thread – of the role of “thoughts and prayers” when it comes to a massacre such as this. Many of my Facebook friends stated emphatically that when it comes to school shootings, thoughts and prayers are simply not enough – that action must be taken, that we must change the laws in our society. While on the other hand, I saw someone else say, “sometimes ALL we can do is pray for a situation, or person!!” She went on to say, “You may not believe in the power of prayer and that’s ok. I believe in it!”
Now, as a person of faith, I do believe that prayer can change things, that God hear our prayers, and that something in the universe is affected when we pray. And yet I believe that the questions people are asking in our society are valid, and that we need to wrestle with the question “Are thoughts and prayers enough? Or is there more we should be doing?”
Paul and Silas in Jail
In Acts chapter 16, Paul and Silas were in prison. And somehow, in the midst of the terrible circumstances that they found themselves in, they began to sing and pray to the Lord.
Now in that particular situation, there was not much else that they could do besides sing and pray. Their hands were literally tied! They were in shackles and chains. They could not advocate for an end to mass incarceration, they could not change the unjust laws in their society that had led to their imprisonment. And so they did the one thing they could do, which was to cry out to God in prayer, and to sing hymns of praise to God.
Now, because the book of Psalms was essentially the Jewish hymnal of the day, most likely Paul and Silas were singing a Psalm. Perhaps they sang Psalm 27 like we read earlier. I can just imagine them, shackled, and chained in a dirty, smelly jail cell. They had just been attacked by a crowd of people, stripped of their clothes and beaten with rods. And now they were in an innermost cell, their feet fastened in the stocks, rats and mice and insects crawling all around them. People sick and diseased. On a human level there was literally nothing they could do to get out or to change the unjust system in which they found themselves.
And so, they began to sing:
“The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?” – Psalm 27:1
Now, to many people, praying and singing when you’re in jail might sound about as futile as sending the family of victims thoughts and prayers. And in truth, often we do not see the results of our prayers. But in this particular instance, when Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns in the prison, all of a sudden, right in the midst of their praying and singing, there was a tremendous earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken, and the doors of the prison came open, and all of the prisoner’s chains were unfastened.
The nature and timing of this earthquake was such that this could not have been a coincidence. It truly was an act of God, in direct answer to their prayers. Can you imagine? An earthquake that opened all the doors of the prison, and even broke the shackles off their feet, yet did not destroy the building itself!? It truly was an answer to their prayers.
And so, on the one hand, this story is a powerful testimony to the reality that prayer is in fact powerful. That God can and does sometimes answer our prayers in miraculous ways. The story of Paul and Silas singing and praying in the innermost part of the prison and being set free by the power of God is a reminder that even when we are in a situation where it seems that there is no way out, and there is nothing else we can do, when our hands are tied – literally or figuratively, we can still pray. Prayer is a powerful force that can bring about change in the world, because the God to whom we pray is powerful.
When Prayer is Not Enough
But on the other hand, there are times when we have the opportunity to do more – when we can both pray, and take action. And in those situations, we don’t stop praying. We start and end in prayer, and all throughout we pray. But we don’t let it stop there. Because, as it has been said frequently over this past week in particular, “There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you are unwilling to resolve.”
In the book of Isaiah, chapter 58 we see a stark prophetic rebuke of people and nations who engage in spiritual and religious activities, but fail to work for justice.
In this particularly passage the prophet calls out the hypocrisy of those who were fasting – which was a type of prayer that involved going without food for periods of time. And here’s what the Lord said through the prophet Isaiah:
“Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.” – Isaiah 58:1-5
We cannot fast, or send up thoughts and prayers, or engage in other religious activities, and expect God to hear and respond to our prayers, if we are unwilling to repent and change the actions we are doing that contribute to the problems we are praying about!
As individuals, and as a church, and as a society, we must do our part to change, and change whatever we can, if we expect God to hear and answer our prayers.
And so we don’t stop praying, because prayer is powerful and can effect change as we see in the Paul and Silas. But in addition to prayer, we also vote, and march, and advocate, and condemn, and testify, and confess, and write, and question, and demand, and comfort, and defend, and call out, and resist, and build, and remember, and commit. As we have the opportunity, we change unjust laws and policies. and we change how money is spent and where it’s allocated. We elevate and make space for those who have not been given the opportunity to let their voices be heard. And so yes we pray, but we also work, and act, and then we pray some more. Because prayer is a powerful force for change, but God will not hear our prayers if we refuse to do our part when given the opportunity.
The good news, according to the prophet Isaiah, is that when engage in the types of religious activities that include loosening the chains of injustice, and freeing those who are oppressed, then the prophet Isaiah tells us that “Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.”
Interestingly enough, the whole reason that Paul and Silas were imprisoned in the first place, and the reason they were attacked by the mob and beaten with rods and publicly humiliated, is that they had delivered a slave girl from demonic oppression who was held in captivity by slave owners who were using her abilities for their own financial gain. So Paul and Silas had literally loosened the chains of injustice, and freed those who were oppressed. No wonder God heard and responded to their prayers!
So let us pray! Let us pray continuously, and may we never stop praying. But let us also act as we have the opportunity. May our prayers not be an excuse to not do our part. Yes, there are times when we are trapped and there is no way out, and prayer may be the only thing we can do in a particular situation. And in those situations we can take comfort in the fact that God hears the cries of the oppressed! But as we have the opportunity, may we act in accordance with the prayers that we pray. If and when we do that, then God will act, and perhaps even work in miraculous ways to bring freedom from oppression, and give us the peace that we so long to experience.