Updated: May 21, 2020
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
+Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for Rogation Sunday, May 17, 2020
“In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”
EVERY JOB, every task, every human endeavor seeks to make life better somehow. Every time someone is willing to pay you a salary it’s for changing things in a better direction. Otherwise, why would they pay you? Pump their gas: and you get people on the road again. Pick grapes: and you’re supplying stores and wineries with the fruits of the vine. Not every job actually succeeds in making life better, but we are motivated only by what we think will improve our lot. Criminals and lunatics produce devastation and disaster, but they aren’t alone. Politicians take their toll as well, convincing voters they’re saving the country… from other politicians.
So, we must believe in a better world. I may wish it only better for myself and can’t worry what it does to the other guy. I may be uniquely talented at hitting a golf ball, so I’ll earn cash in seven figures. I’m not sure how exactly that improves the world, but it improves my world.
Humans are limited. We do marvelous things—run the four-minute mile, build a bridge, walk in space, write best sellers—but no matter how far we get, there’s farther to go and at the end of our abilities we look out on the farther shore. Babel never got finished, the fusion reactor never lit the lights in Livermore, no perpetual motion machine ever kept moving forever, and no particle by any name has been found to be God.
We strive, we invent, we apply healing arts, we study, we train, we strain at gnats—and we gain an inch, a foot, half a yard. Not a mile. The great books already having been written; we strive to sell the most paperbacks. The aeroplane having taken man to the skies 100 years ago, we now invent robot drones that take nobody anywhere. Having increased food production by artificial means, tasteless and void of nutrition, we now reinvent natural food and call our invention “organic.” Our achievements turn to the technical, and we shudder to think what we may create through genetic engineering. Frankenstein’s monster may have been more prophetic than we imagined. How do you create a soul?
But if we are seeking a better world, we might achieve greatly, and then hit the wall. People still die of cancer. Marriages still end in divorce. Kids still get hooked on drugs. We still have our limitations and faults as human beings. Human frailty and fat-headedness still vaunt themselves against reason and reason’s God. We survive but do we thrive? We gaze toward the heavens and we wonder.
We were meant to strive. God sent us out of the garden to sweat and toil and win our bread by working. There’s no shame in working to improve things. There is great shame in sitting down and expecting God, or the Federal government, to show up with a catering truck while we do nothing for ourselves. God is there for doing God’s work. We are here for doing our own. We may have our job figured out. What is God’s work?
Open your eyes and see it. None of this was made by people. We take God-given materials—wood from trees, metal from mountains, fibers from plants—and with them we fashion beams and carpets and candlesticks. But we make none of it ourselves. We reshape what God has provided. If He didn’t do that, and do it constantly, we’d starve and freeze and fall through space—if we even existed at all. But we wouldn’t even exist, so you can stop screaming.
We build hospitals and with the best medical science available, we do what we can to save lives. A few years ago, a toddler was taken by a frightened Hispanic mother to the emergency room where every medical hand available did all in their power to save him. His breathing and heartbeat had stopped. Neighbors had administered CPR, and the EMTs continued the efforts in the ambulance. As the police chaplain, I was called in and watched nurses continue this life saving operation for a whole hour until finally a tiny heartbeat registered on the overhead monitor. They called the helicopter crew and the U.C. Davis Med Center to give this boy his best chance at survival. His heart continued on its own as he was bundled away, while his mother, her friend, a social worker, and one police chaplain prayed madly for his recovery. Everyone did what they could do, but that boy survived by the grace of God. The prayers of a desperate mother were heard.
We often ask God only when we’ve run out options. Is that when we should start to think about Him and His loving provisions?
TV Westerns in the 50s always had a shootout between the black hats and the white hats. The bad guy always fires his pistol until he’s run out of bullets. Click, click goes the hammer. So, what does he do? He naturally throws his weapon at the Lone Ranger. As bad a shot as he is with his .45, he’s always a worse shot with the pistol as a projectile, and the gun clatters uselessly down the ravine.
Is this how we pray? Do we shoot prayers toward heaven only when we’ve run out of bullets and, now helpless, we figure, “All we can do now is pray.”
People laugh at people in prayer. It’s probably always been so, but the laughter is louder today than years ago. Yet the evidence keeps rolling in through the centuries. Prayer does change things. We run out of our bullets, our efforts, our skills, our medicine, our money: and in desperation we turn to God, and the answers come.
Everybody prays. Not everybody prays right. We pray like bank robbers when we’re young and self-seeking, wanting only things for ourselves—the car, the girl, the house, a better job. We could pray with St. Paul “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence… God our Savior desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” 1 Tim 2:1-4 He encourages us to pray everywhere: without any doubt.
St. James tells the church if anyone suffers or labors under hardship: pray. If we are happy, sing. If we are sick, let ministers pray over us, anointing us, “and the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” James 5:15 Countless times when a simple prayer and holy oil are administered at a hospital bed, the patient is discharged early by a satisfied, and somewhat surprised, nursing staff.
The rogation days are a four-day season when we are encouraged to ask God for whatever we may feel is needed. We’re not limited to four days, but they serve as an annual reminder. God, the prayer book says, is always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and more willing to grant our prayers than we feel worthy of His benefit. Yet He is able to do abundantly more than we can think or say. “Rogation” means to ask. Jesus said, “Ask, seek, knock” because God wants to fulfill our lives, abundantly.
When we do not ask, He often will not provide. And why? He’s not a vending machine. He doesn’t have to give us anything. But He wants us to live in a right relationship to Him, and He wishes us to know that all things come by His Hand. If we ask, and then receive, we’ll see the invisible. We’ll know the unknowable. We will think the unthinkable. God hears and answers my prayers.
What would you ask for? Rain? Good: you’ve asked, now listen. A healed economy? Ask Him. The end of COVID-19? Good prayer, ask. Better golf swing? I’m not sure He tampers with sports, but you can ask. Do you need healing? Ask, and keep on asking. A happier marriage? The love of an adult child? Faith restored? Joy for living? Peace in your heart?
You may say, “But God already knows these things. Won’t He do it whether I ask Him or not? If He hasn’t fixed it yet, why would my prayers make any difference?” That’s the mystery. He tells us to ask Him. “Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you. Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.” Ask—He says ask first—and then you’ll receive.
Prayer is not the last resort of a lazy, empty-headed, do-nothing dreamer. Asking God is not our last resort, but the first thing to do. As we rise each day we should say, “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” I do what I do now in His strength, by His leave, and for His glory. That makes even digging a ditch the substance of prayer. Prayer is not some fond request shot into the heavens. Prayer is a living relationship with our Maker who knows how to fulfill our real needs.
Prayer is divine work. It overcomes obstacles. I don’t know how that happens, but God hears us when we earnestly pray. Jesus dictated letters for seven churches in St. John’s Revelation. Each letter evaluated a church, and then stated a general promise to all who overcome. “To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God… He shall not be hurt by the second death. I will give the hidden manna to eat. I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it. I will give power over the nations… I will give him the morning star. He shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels… I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God... And I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, New Jerusalem. And I will write on him My new name. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne.” Rev 2-3
Such are the promises of the Savior of our race. But what are we to overcome? Inertia. Despair. Disbelief. Pride. Fear that the world will mock us. Fear that our prayers won’t be answered. But what of that? Every prayer is answered, even if the answer is ‘no.’ And if the answer is ‘no,’ then what He means is, ‘I have something better.’
Ask. It costs nothing but faith and time. It requires nothing but heart. It yields… well, you need to find that out for yourself. Dare to ask, and God will be happy, and ready, and willing to give you His answer. He will move heaven and earth to see, in the end, that you overcome.