Growing Deep Spiritual Roots
A Sermon by
Rev. Richard J. Koch
May 13, 2018
Trinity Presbyterian Church
It had to be about fourth grade when a rambunctious friend from church suggested we play hooky from Sunday School. His name was JJ and he was a year or two older than me, but we knew each other well through common church activities. I wasn’t so sure, but trusted JJ knew what he was doing. The Congregational church where we grew up had about 3,000 members with two services on Sunday mornings. The Sunday School classes were crammed full of kids as our Baby Boomer generation dominated the scene. With all that activity, JJ and I figured we’d never be missed. We snuck down to the youth room of the church, which was typically empty during the worship and Sunday School hour. There we drank soda pop from the youth vending machine – a nickel for a twelve-ounce glass bottle in those days – and we played table football with that little folded paper triangle. Two young boys having the time of their lives and nobody the wiser.
Nevertheless, my Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Watson, knew my mom well. After all, together they taught our class in second grade two years earlier. Mrs. Watson saw my mom after the service and asked if I was alright. Of course, my mom didn’t know what she was talking about until Mrs. Watson revealed I hadn’t attended class. Mom had moved on from teaching to singing in the choir, so she had been in the worship service in the sanctuary. Well, of course, mom confronted me about my behavior. I didn’t get disciplined in the traditional sense, though my mom and I had some long discussions about responsibilities and proper choices and whom I should follow and whom I should avoid. She didn’t suggest JJ was a terrible boy, though she offered that he maybe didn’t always have great ideas and that I should be more discerning.
So, when I read the Psalm for today I thought of my mom and I thought of that incident. I’m sure there are a lot of other incidents in my life where I strayed from the path of the righteous, yet for some reason in the preparation for this message, the Spirit reminded me of that particular time. Anyway, “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on that law day and night.” Both my mom and dad worked hard to steer their kids toward a spiritual relationship with God and to learn to trust God working in our lives. They, the World War II generation who themselves grew up watching various evils grip the world, knew it would be too easy for their kids to “… walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take ….”
Therefore, it was also about fourth grade when I asked my mom about prayer and I wondered did she ever really talk with God and if so, what did God say to her? Well, she took me seriously and we had a lengthy conversation about how prayer sometimes worked for her. She also acknowledged how prayer might work differently for others. She told me a story about when she was growing up and she prayed to God about something and received a very clear answer. She described it as something between a voice and a feeling. Nonetheless, she heeded the spiritual guidance given her and described to me an immediate sense of peace. She also told me that over time she was able to understand more clearly why God gave her the answer that she received, which in turn increased her sense of peace.
This sermon represents the third of three in a series on prayer. The first one spoke to the theme in 1 John chapter 4 where God is simply described as love and how love casts out fear and when we pray to the God of love, fear becomes vanquished. Then, last week, we examined prayer as being an act of obedience and how obedience to God grants us peace, because obedience simply means we can rest the control of our lives into the arms of perfect love. Today, we look at how prayer keeps us grounded in the Lord because, as it is written, “That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither – whatever they do prospers.” Just as the trees near the water grow strong, well nourished roots, we have access to a personal relationship with God and to each other. Right now, we are all surrounded by other believers, holy saints, Godly mentors, and Divine accountability partners who help support us throughout our growing spiritual lives.
About a hundred years ago, a girl named Agnes was growing up in a fairly prosperous family and life was good until her father suddenly died when she was eight years old. Christian author Eric Metaxas describes that the family went from a relative life of ease to poverty. “To pay the bills,” he writes, “Agnes’s mother took in sewing, but Agnes recalled that even facing hard times, her mother continued to look after the needs of the poor and sick in the neighborhood. Agnes observed her mother each week bringing food to the home of a poor woman and even cleaning her house. She also took care of another woman whose body was covered in sores, and when a poor widow died, she took the woman’s children into her own family. She was the model for the young girl who would one day become Mother Teresa.” Today, Mother’s Day, we can think of Mother Theresa’s mother and ponder how our simple acts of living, serving, loving, and praying may influence and nourish the spiritual roots of the children of God around us. We’ll never know how the faithful lives we live today will model the example for our potential saints of tomorrow.
Surely my mom and dad both taught me to pray and helped me build a spiritual life. As I developed this message, I’ve discovered that fourth grade was a seminal year for me, because that’s also the time when I first announced to my mom my interest in becoming a church pastor. But it was more than just my parents who made sure to expose us kids to a lot of different growing experiences. By the time I reached junior high, I was sent to summer church camps. There I was met by some important people of prayer. A young counselor barely out of high school named Dave, who is now a medical doctor in Virginia, watched over a cabin full of eighth grade boys. Never mind we had the whole camp singing and worshiping in the beautiful chapel in the pine woods and around the camp fire at night. That wasn’t enough for Dave. Before bedtime, he gathered us boys and taught us more and prayed with us and invited us to pray. Through that experience I became confident enough to sometimes pray before the whole camp, which astounded my older sister.
In high school church camp, I remember asking Pastor Jack, a very spiritual man, to help me with prayer and perhaps even learn better how to pray. He spent time with me using scripture to support the idea that God approves of prayers with some organization and, with the Lord’s prayer being an example, he described how we can use a couple of words as acronyms to help us shape our prayers. We’ve heard these before. We can take the word PRAY and break it down to praise, repent, another (meaning praying for others), and yourself (meaning praying for yourself). The other word is ACTS which stands for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. Over the years and even after becoming ordained, whenever I saw him, Pastor Jack gave me so much more than that small discourse on prayer.
Of course, the years of church ministry and military chaplaincy have been periods of personal spiritual growth and sometimes spiritual challenge. Pastors, lay people, chaplains, and soldiers have sought my prayer support and, yes, many times provided me with prayer encouragement. I believe, in my own imperfect way, I’ve had the opportunity to model my faith for others. Certainly, I know that to this very day others, and many people right here today, continue to be faithful role models for my further spiritual development. So, I feel compelled by the Spirit to share how special the prayer life here at Trinity Presbyterian Church has been and continues to be for me. Mary and I have served five church pastor positions, all of them wonderful in their own way, and still we are pleasantly astounded with the wonderful prayer life here at Trinity. You are the most prayerful bunch a pastor could hope for. Your ministry of prayer ministers to us and just speaking for myself, I sorely need what you have to offer.
Some minutes ago, I mentioned having first felt the tug toward pastoral ministry as early as the fourth grade. The call became stronger through junior high and high school. I somewhat naively imagined what we were experiencing in youth group and especially at church camp, with all the loving fellowship and faithful prayer, that those experiences are what serving a church would be like. Well, not really. Yet, forty some years later here we are and to my personal delight, you guys are really close to those ideals. Mary and I have watched you launch into prayer over big joys and concerns and what some might consider to be little things. That’s it! Let’s acknowledge and invite God into every facet of life. I have a close friend outside of this church, a believer in God, though he doesn’t think God gets involved in the small stuff. I just want to shake him awake. It’s in the small stuff, in the very atoms and molecules, where God works everyday to make really big things happen.
So, I thank you, faithful people of Trinity, and I thank you for praying the big things and the small things and all things. I thank you for having a really meaningful Wednesday evening prayer ministry that gathers at 6:30 in the Ralph Weeks Room (shameless advertisement for a wonderful event). We know we’re not perfect, yet our mutual growing spiritual life together helps us to embrace the very first word of all the Psalms. The Hebrew word is “esher”, which conveys the idea of happiness or contentment. And from our version read today we hear “esher” translated into English as “Blessed”. We are blessed when we pray. We are happy when we pray together. We are contented when we rest our lives in the hands of the Lord. “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night…. For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.” Keep praying, folks. Keep praying big things and small. For in such spiritual activity we obediently, and with the support of ministering to each other, enter in life that the God of love has to offer. Amen.