A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Monday, July 26, 2021

Sermon (July 25) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     When I first came here six years ago to serve as your pastor, I remember walking into the sanctuary and I could tell something right away. Call this what you want but I could sense even before I started meeting you, that you had been praying for me.

     There was just something about the spirit of this place where I knew that there had been many prayers preceding my arrival here. I mentioned this to somebody soon after I arrived here and that person said, “Yeah, that’s true. The people here really do believe in prayer.”

     Based on me sharing this observation with you, the answer to my sermon title question is pretty obvious. Yes, our prayers really do make a difference.

     The Apostle Paul believed in the power of prayer. In a letter that he wrote to the Christians who lived in Ephesus, he tells them that he has been praying for them. Paul was in prison when he wrote this letter to them. Imagine receiving a letter from someone who is confined to a prison cell because of his faith, but who still wants you to know that you are being lifted in prayer.

     And even though Paul was praying primarily for the Christians in Ephesus, as I read his letter, it feels like he was praying for all of us as well. He writes,

     “For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, form whom every family in heaven and earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted  and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the Saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

     If you are ever having a rough day and feeling discouraged, imagine receiving a letter like this where someone shares that they are praying for you in such an uplifting and encouraging way. Prayers really do make a difference!

     In one of the churches I served, there was a home bound member I would visit from time to time. He lived in a really tiny apartment. His name was Chester, Chester Mustard. Great name! During my first visit with him, I introduced myself and he wanted me to know that he prays for me every day and that he would continue to pray for me every day.

     He said this in a way that I knew it was true. Just the look in his eyes told me that he really meant it. And throughout my ministry at that church, I would think of Chester often and how he was lifting me in prayer. That had such a powerful impact on me. Even though he was confined there in his small apartment, I could feel his prayers and encouragement finding their way to wherever I was at the time.

     I think it’s interesting that this Ephesians reading is paired today with our Gospel reading where Jesus fed five thousand people with just five loaves and two fish.  How do you feed that many people with such a small amount of food?

     What does Jesus do? He puts an usher team together and has them seat the people on the hillside. And after everyone has been seated, Jesus takes that little bit of food and offers a prayer of thanksgiving and that little bit of food ended up not only feeding those five thousand people, but they even had lots of leftovers.

     One little prayer of thanksgiving led to a miraculous feeding. Our prayers really do make a difference!

     These reminders of how prayer really does make a difference is important for us especially during those days when we are feeling that our prayers are just bouncing off the walls. We can get discouraged and we might begin to wonder if our prayers really do make a difference.

     This past spring following the mass shooting at a grocery store in Colorado, I was listening to two politicians sparring with each other over the topic of prayer. This type of heated exchange often happens after these mass shootings. A politician will offer their thoughts and prayers for the families of the shooting victims and then another politician will say, “our thoughts and prayers are not enough. We need common sense gun legislation.”

     The phrase, “thoughts and prayers” has been used so often that it almost feels empty in it’s meaning. Have you ever felt that way about prayer? I want to interrupt these politicians who are arguing with each other and say, “It’s not one or the other. We can pray and take action as well.” It’s both/and, not either/or. I want to say, “Yes, let’s offer our thoughts and prayers especially for politicians to make changes that will make it more difficult for these mass shootings to occur.”

     Sometimes, our prayers do lead us to make positive changes in order to make this world a better place. It’s not one over the other.

     Whenever I pray for someone who is about to have surgery, I pray for the surgeon and the medical team to use their God-given abilities, skills, medical knowledge, training, and expertise in a way that would help that person to receive healing and wholeness. Whenever I pray for friends or family members who are going on a trip, I pray for them to make wise decisions and to be alert to any challenges they may face along the way.

     I do this because deep down, I believe that our prayers really do make a difference. Even though the Apostle Paul was in a prison and there wasn’t a whole lot that he could do from a prison cell, he knew that his prayers could make a big difference.

     One of the reasons our church was able to not only survive but thrive during all of those months when our church building was closed for many of our ministries, was because of all of our prayers. We never stopped praying whether it was through our online worship services or throughout our weekly email prayer chain. 

     The prayers kept pouring out. And whenever I received those prayer requests, it always reminded me that we were still praying. And God was answering our prayers. Even though we were often times physically separated from each other, we stayed connected through our prayers for each other.

     I know all of this may sound mysterious as we think about how prayer makes a difference so let me offer a more scientific approach. 

     Ilia Delia is a Christian author and theologian who focuses on the interaction of science and religion. She explains in her writings how quantum physics helps us to understand how prayer can make a difference. Yes, you can tell the people that you see after church that your pastor talked about quantum physics in the sermon.

     Delia makes the point that quantum physics is really about wave particle duality. Now, stay with me because I think you will find this really interesting.

     All matter is a form of energy and all energy is a form of matter. So instead of matter simply consisting of separate little atoms, these atoms are really energy that have a relationship with each other. In other words, there is no matter that exists independent of any other matter. It’s all deeply relational and interconnected fields within fields.

     So, for example, if you pick a flower on earth, you can move the farthest star. And that means that if I would take two particles that have interacted and I separate them by a vast distance, and I then place one particle on this pulpit here in Athens, Ohio and the other particle on the moon, and if I would place the particle on this pulpit 180 degrees here, that means that the particle on the moon should also turn 180 degrees down. 

     Albert Einstein is the one who first started talking about this idea of the relationality of particles even when they are separated by an incredibly long distance. Even though the particles aren’t communicating with each other, by changing one particle, you end up changing the other. The word that describes this relationality between particles is known as quantum entanglement. 

     Ilia Delio has taken this understanding of quantum physics where there is this incredible relationship with particles and has applied it to our interactions as humans. Our actions and our thoughts are not isolated. Our thoughts and actions affect others.

     She uses the example of someone who has been interacting with a friend. And that person might wonder how his or her friend is doing in that particular moment. And then maybe just a half hour later, that person gets a phone call or an email from that same person. These mysterious serendipitous moments happen to us from time to time leaving us wonder if that was just a coincidence. 

     Based on quantum physics, these so called “coincidences” might have something to do with how our thoughts and our actions can still have this relational connection even when you are totally separated from the other person. This idea of quantum entanglement can help us to see how creation itself is entangled with the Creator. Which means that God’s life affects our lives and our lives affect God’s life.

     And all of this is what our faith teaches us that God is personal. God is communicative. And God is relational. The incarnation where God becomes one of us through the person of Jesus Christ reminds us that even though God is distinct from matter, God is is also connected with matter. 

     And all of this can lead us to this theological conclusion: Everything that has been created, you, me and this entire world has a divine dimension of depth to it in which all matter is connected to an eternal source. And this is what makes this world holy. 

     So when you see the face of another person, you are in some sense seeing a reflection of the face of God. When you look at a leaf, you are in some sense seeing a reflection of God’s wisdom and glory. 

     Maybe instead of referring to this as “quantum entanglement,” we can think of prayer as an exercise in “holy entanglement.” When we pray, we release an energy, an energy of divine love that according to all of this scientific talk, can have a positive impact in our world. Our prayers are connected with God and can make a difference in the lives of others.

     Well, anyway, the Apostle Paul thought so. And that’s why he continued to pray even while he was in prison because he knew that those prayers would have an impact upon the Christians in Ephesus. 

     So much so that this is why Paul says in the last verse of our scripture reading,

     “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever, and ever. Amen.”

    And so, yes.  Our prayers really do make a difference! Thanks be to God!

Do My Prayers Make a Difference?

Sermon Discussion Questions
Ephesians 3:14-21
July 25, 2021

Pastor Robert shared that when he first arrived in Athens, he could already sense the prayers that had been lifted for him. 

Have you ever sensed that someone had been praying for you? Share what that experience was like.

In our Ephesians scripture reading, the Apostle Paul is in prison for his faith and he is letting the Christians in Ephesus know that he has been praying for them. 

Why do you think that Paul wanted to them to know that he was praying for them? How do you think this made them feel?

Our Ephesians reading reminds us of the importance of prayer.

Who do you pray for on a consistent basis? Do you ever wonder if your prayers are making a difference in that person’s life?

Pastor Robert shared the theological work of Ilia Delio who focuses on the interaction of science and religion. Ilia uses the concept of quantum physics to help describe how our prayers really can make a difference in the lives of others. She explains how quantum physics says that atoms are energy and they share a relationship. In a similar way, our prayers are a form of energy that share a relationship. She uses the example of when we are thinking of someone, we sometimes receive a call from that person. We wonder if it’s just a coincidence but based on quantum physics, it may be that our thoughts and our prayer energy are making a connection with that person.

Share a time when you felt that a connection was being made with someone through your prayers. 

Our church provides several different opportunities for sharing prayers. These include sharing prayer requests that are sent to our email prayer chain, sharing in worship service prayers such as the opening prayer of confession and the pastoral prayer. We also encourage our small groups and bible studies to begin with prayer.

Do you have a personal prayer routine throughout the week? Share some of the ways that you seek to make prayer more of a priority in your life.

Share in this worship prayer that was used in Sunday’s service:

O Lord, we confess that there are times when we wonder if you really hear our prayers. Sometimes you feel so far away and we begin to doubt if our prayers really make a difference. As our Psalm for today says, “we have all gone astray.” Help us to find our way again and to rejoice in how you have been our refuge and strength. When we look down and see that we only have five loaves and two fish to feed thousands of people, remind us to also look up and offer these gifts to you. You are able to accomplish far more than we can ask or imagine! To you be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

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