This month I’d like us to consider, in five sermons, the promises we make when we become members of the United Methodist Church. Look, with me, at the service of baptismal covenant in your Hymnal, beginning on page 34. In baptism, the baptized or their parents or sponsors are asked about their faith: do you reject evil and repent of your sin; do you accept God’s power to resist evil; do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior. Then candidates are asked (line 6) if they will be faithful members of the Body of Christ and represent Christ in the world. Those answers, with baptism, make us members of the holy catholic universal church. On page 38, we become members of the United Methodist Church, promising to be loyal and to strengthen its ministries. Finally, at line 15, candidates are asked to do five things as a member of this congregation: to faithfully participate in its ministries with prayers, presence, gifts, and service. In 2008, General Conference added a fifth promise to that list: will you participate in the ministries of this congregation with your witness.
In the Fall of every year, we go through a process of deciding what our ministry will be for the coming calendar year. We nominate church leaders, we develop a budget, we evaluate what we’ve done the past year. It’s a time to measure ourselves. For the next five Sundays, I’d like us to look at what these five promises every one of us who’s a member of this congregation made. Today, what does it mean to faithfully participate in the ministries of this church with our prayers?
In the gospel lesson for this morning, Jesus is returning to Jerusalem from Bethany on Monday of Holy Week. He’s stressed by what he knows will happen to him, and he is hungry. He passes by a fig tree that is in leaf but has no fruit. “May no fruit ever come from you again,” he declares, and the tree instantly withers. When his disciples marvel at this event, Jesus tells them that if they have faith and pray, they will receive, no matter what obstacle — empty fig tree or mountain — confronts them.
This is a hard text. What has the fig tree done? In fact, it’s not even the season for figs – that would be in the summer, and this is the spring. Why does Jesus condemn the fig tree for not producing figs when it’s out of season?
It seems to me that Jesus is telling the disciples, and us, that fruitfulness for God is always in season. God doesn’t expect us just to be fruitful on Sundays, or when we’re distributing door hangers in Five Lakes, or at Bible studies. The real test of our faithfulness and fruitfulness is when we’re “out of season:” on vacation, at work, or school, or at play. Or maybe when we’re sick, or in the hospital. What kind of fruit do people see in you when you’re least expected to be producing fruit for God?
A vital prayer life makes us constantly fruitful: when we begin and end and saturate our days with prayer, it’s like living in a greenhouse of faith: we live in the light and warmth and rain of God without ceasing. That’s what the Bible means when it tells us to “pray without ceasing:” we bathe our days in conversation with God, so that everything we are and do is through the presence of God in the power of the Holy Spirit.
That is why I began our conversation about The Promises of Membership with prayer. Prayer is absolutely the foundation for everything you and I do and are as disciples of Jesus Christ. Jesus, more than anything else, was a man of prayer, and if we are going to follow Jesus, that is the absolutely best place to start. His conception in Mary’s womb begins with Mary’s prayer of praise to God. His last words on the cross are a prayer. He is constantly separating himself from the chaos around him to pray. He slips into conversation with his Heavenly Father as easily as you and I turn and talk to our best friend next to us. Jesus wraps every day and every action in a conversation with God. My Baptist preacher friend Charlie Barton says that sin is pretending God does not exist. That’s what it means when we say Jesus is without sin: there is never a moment in which Jesus pretends God does not exist.
I believe the healing of human beings, the healing of Christ’s church, the healing of this and any nation, and the healing of the cosmos can only happen when there is dedicated, deliberate, disciplined prayer. If you and I and all God’s people will commit ourselves to deep, daily, dedicated prayer, then we won’t have to worry about the economy and justice and politics and the environment and anything else. The mess we are in is because we do not pray. We do not surrender ourselves to the presence and the will of God. And anything I say about showing up and gifts and service and mission and anything else is a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal if you and I are not first and last and everything in between people of deeply committed prayer. So, as we begin this month of more deeply committing ourselves to the promises we made when we joined the church, will you join me in committing to deep, time-consuming, committed, prayer?
Now, how do we pray? In four ways:
Pray regularly. Create a regular meeting place and time with God. Of course we can pray to God anytime, anyplace. But if you create a special time and place for prayer every day, you will expect to meet God there. Expecting God, you will be more open to him. Like eating and exercising and working, it makes all the difference to have a disciplined pattern of prayer. Like they used to say on TV, same time, same place.
Pray in faith. Pray surrendering yourself to God. Trust that God will hear and respond. Faith, I like to say, is like swimming: you have to trust that the water will hold you up. Pray surrendering yourself to the fact that God loves you, hears you, and is answering you.
Pray with help. Surround your prayers with scripture, other holy readings, sacred pictures, music, and anything else that helps you be closer to God. If you will read some scripture before you pray, it will remind you of what God’s voice sounds like, so you’ll recognize it when he speaks.
Pray with listening. The telephone has a mouthpiece and an earphone. You can talk without ever being connected. It’s listening that proves we’re connected on the phone or in prayer. Listening to God is where we really become available to God.
Being available for God is what being a member of the church is all about. As we pray for our brothers and sisters in the church, as we pray for the ministry of the church, for the finances and the building and the work of the church, we are placing ourselves at God’s disposal.
Are you praying for this church? Are you praying for its members and its leaders? Are you praying for its mission and ministry? Are you praying for God to use you as God pleases? Are you praying to be fruitful for God, in season and out?
Well, you promised.