Thoughts and Prayers

 A sermon inspired by Philippians 4:4-9 on the Day of Pentecost 2022

Today is the Day of Pentecost, and that means different things to different people. For some it’s the day we wear red to church. For others it’s the day churches confirm their youth. For others it’s the day we decorate with flames and doves. Biblically, it’s the day we remember the story of the Holy Spirit being gifted to the Jewish followers of Jesus that had gathered in Jerusalem for a Jewish holiday of their own. Therefore, it has come to be known as the birthday of the church, not the birthday of the Holy Spirit, as she has been with us since the dawn of time, but the birthday of the church. So, it’s a big holiday. Technically it’s as big as Christmas and Easter! However, nobody told that to Hallmark. So, here we are, celebrating this big but little-known to the rest of the world holy day of Pentecost. 

Rather than focus on that old story from Acts concerning the birthday of the church though, we have this final reading from the letter to the Philippians, and I couldn’t help but notice something that has been on my mind lately in this reading: thoughts and prayers. Did you notice those in our reading? Paul wrote, “focus your thoughts on these things” and also, “bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers.” Thoughts and prayers. It has become a phrase often heard when no other words can be found, and often after a tragedy of some kind; whether it’s a natural disaster or another school shooting. Thoughts and prayers are what people send, when they don’t know what else to do. 

Even when those thoughts and prayers are backed by genuine love and care, it’s difficult sometimes for victims of tragedy to take those words seriously—especially when the same tragedy happens over and over and over again. There comes a time when thoughts and prayers are insufficient, when more substantial assistance is needed. Let me put it this way, if you saw someone standing on the edge of a cliff and begin to lose their balance, are they gonna want your thoughts and prayers, or do you think they’d rather have you extend your hand and keep them from falling? They’d rather have your hand. Why? Because they know thoughts and prayers are not going to save them from falling off that cliff. Oh pastor, how can you say that? Don’t you believe in the power of prayer? 

Well, sure, but I think I might have a different idea of what prayer is, or more accurately, what prayer does, or should do. And for that matter, what thoughts should do. So, let’s start there, with thoughts. I don’t know if sending thoughts started as a way of expressing care to non-religious people, or if it was a way to let someone know that they were thinking of them, but it is a curious thing, isn’t it? What does sending thoughts even do? Consider this, I can think about being a good dad til my brain hurts, does thinking about it make it so? Well, to an extent, but those thoughts are meaningless if I don’t turn out to be a good dad, right! But if those thoughts begin to work on me, to change me, to alter my decisions, to influence my actions, to actually make me a better dad. Well, then, those are thoughts I can get behind! 

If those are the kind of thoughts that people are talking about after a tragedy, then I’m all for it. Paul writes, “focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure…practice these things” Paul says. Even for Paul, it wasn’t enough to just think, but to put those thoughts into action was key. Now, let’s turn our attention to prayer. This is where it gets a little more complicated. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s only complicated because we have been led to believe that prayer is just conversation with God. And while that’s not wrong, I think it’s so much more than that. Humor me for a second, and think of one of the most influential persons in your life, someone you actually knew. Everyone thought of one? Ok, now I want you to think of all the conversations that you’ve had with that influential person. 

I want you to think about how those conversations influenced you. How did those conversations change the course of your life? How did those conversations change you, make you a better person, help you make good decisions in your life? You see, those conversations weren’t just conversations, were they! Those conversations took on a life of their own, helped to form the person you are today. Those conversations translated into action of some kind. If they didn’t, you probably wouldn’t have considered them an influential person in your life, right? Whenever I’m going through a rough time as a parent, my dad always tells me, “Just keep talking to them, Son. Just keep talking. Don’t give up.” 

And I think that’s because my dad knows that it’s not just about words, but that those conversations have the potential to make a positive difference. Restated in our faith language, those conversations have the potential to create life. And that is how I see our conversations with God, that’s how I see prayer, which is why I think prayer is so much more than just conversations with God. But like so many other conversations we have, they have the potential to make a positive difference, they have the potential to create life, to change you, to transform you, to be willing to be an answer to someone’s prayer. Now, if that’s what people mean by prayer when they send their thoughts and prayers after a tragedy, then I am all for it! And maybe they do. Maybe they do. 

This different way of thinking about thoughts and prayers may not be very popular and that’s probably because it takes some work on our part. It moves us from being spectators and receivers to doers and givers. And I can’t think of a better way of celebrating this Day of Pentecost. Because isn’t that what the Holy Spirit is always doing in us? Encouraging us, urging us, pushing us, to move from being spectators and receivers in this world to being doers and givers? That’s probably why Pentecost didn’t really catch on to the folks over at Hallmark. 

One theologian put it this way, “The problem with Pentecost is that it so unambiguously requires of us that we carry the gospel out into the world, and blow our own covers. It is one thing to adore the infant Jesus, to mourn the death of Jesus in our insular communities. It is something else, VERY else, and to many, VERY scary, to proclaim the gospel in every action we take. Pentecost gives us marching orders. Christmas is so much easier.” On this Day of Pentecost, my friends, I encourage you to keep up with your thoughts and prayers, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, may you allow her to work in you in such a way that those thoughts and prayers create transforming life in you and those around you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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