Praying Through it All
A Sermon on Daniel 6 and Matthew 5
As you can tell, it's Camp Week here at All Saints'! We'll have more to say about camp later on (this morning), but the one thing I want to tell you now is that the campers and counselors – and those of us who came for parts of the camp week experience – had a great time. This year's camp reminded me of the other church camps I've been blessed to be part. I also thought about my own camp days when I was in high school. At Camp Gailor Maxon in Monteagle, Tennessee, we did a lot of the same kinds of things the campers did this week, including a service project to help others. Back then there was healthy competition among the cabins at camp as to who would create the best service project. It felt real different from the unhealthy competition and pressure I so often felt at school. For one week each summer, it was great not to feel all of that peer pressure.
Peer pressure. It's easy for us to get caught up in it. Peer pressure starts when we are young, and it happens at any age. Today we use the word “bullying” to describe peer pressure taken to the extreme. About a third of all teens have been victims of some kind of cyber-(or online) bullying. Nearly all teenagers have seen it happen to someone else. And more than half of the teens who see someone else get cyberbullied do nothing about it. Because. . .if you speak up, you might become a target, too.
Actually, about two-thirds of young people say there's more off-line bullying going on than there is on-line. Either way, it's all about what people say, in person or indirectly. Bullying starts with rumor and gossip and exclusion. Then bullying elevates to harassment, perhaps with stalking, even threats. The worst form of bullying can end with someone getting hurt physically or, tragically, even losing life. When I grew up, I learned to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But I came to see how words actually DID hurt, sometimes more than anything else.
Bullying is actually a kind of persecution, which can take many forms. One of the most common forms of persecution is about religion. Religious persecution isn't limited to Jews or Christians. Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus – even Mormons learn to live with religious bullying and persecution. And religious bullying is what happened to Daniel.
In today's Bible story, before Daniel broke the law, he had been made a president in the King's court. King Darius had 120 satraps (or governors) and three presidents. Daniel was the most “distinguished” and faithful of them all. In fact, King Darius had planned to make Daniel the chief president of his entire royal court. This, you might imagine, made the other satraps and presidents jealous and angry, enough to conspire against Daniel. First, they “tried to find grounds for complaint” against him. Then, when they couldn't find a single thing that Daniel had done wrong, they bullied him.
The satraps and presidents made something up, just to hurt Daniel. They drafted a new law, an “interdict,” that would forbid anyone to pray to anyone. . .except to the King. If anyone did pray, let's say, to the one, true God, he would be thrown into the lions' den. And they all got King Darius to sign it. Then, they watched Daniel like a hawk. Daniel, it turns out, knew all about it. He knew about the new law and yet, after it had been signed and posted, he went ahead and prayed to the one, true God anyway. In fact, he made sure the windows in his room, which faced Jerusalem, were wide open. And he prayed to God not once, but three times a day. You might say Daniel was practicing civil disobedience. In fact, we're told the great Mahatma Gandhi found real consolation in Daniel's story. And Gandhi was someone who knew all about persecution and bullying.
Which reminds us that, while it's easy for us to give in to peer pressure, it's hard for us to “pray for your enemies,” as Jesus puts it in our other Bible lesson today. Enemies, of course, are those who try to bully or persecute us. Gandhi learned to pray for his enemies. Daniel did it. Jesus did it and told his friends to do it. But that doesn't make it easy to pray, even to the one, true God, for those people who clearly want to hurt us. So, we don't pray. We hesitate. Maybe we're afraid. Maybe we're feeling the pressure to “man up.” Maybe we're seriously considering the not-so-Golden Rule – “Do something to someone before they get a chance to do it to you.”
All through Matthew's fifth chapter, Jesus keeps saying, “You have heard it said. . .but I say to you. . .” Jesus wants us to shift our thinking and change our behaving. Don't take “an eye for an eye” anymore, he says. Instead, “turn the other cheek.” Don't just pray for your neighbors, he says, those who are almost like family to you, those who are your best friends. Pray also for your enemies, those who dare to bully you and persecute you and hurt you and just want you gone. But praying for enemies is easier said than done. It's really hard to pray for your enemies and those who persecute you – even though Jesus says to do it, even though we want to love God and follow Jesus.
Daniel prayed, three times a day, “praising God, just as he had done previously,” even though he knew he was destined for the dungeon. God sent an angel to protect him from the lions, just as another angel had protected his three friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, while they were in a fiery furnace. That kind of divine protection and deliverance from evil and death is not something most people experience. But we can still trust in God in the way that Daniel did. We can still trust in the power of prayer.
Many of you already trust in that power, in God's protection, healing and love, through your own prayer or the prayers of others. Whether you are a Daughter or Junior Daughter of the King, a healing prayer or Eucharistic minister or simply someone who benefits from the prayers of others, you may have come to know that prayer makes a difference. Prayer changes things. Prayer changes us to be more in tune with God.
So, we need to jump right in – like campers jump into a swimming pool, when it gets really hot – and go right ahead and pray, whatever may happen – to pray in whatever way our prayer may best work for us – because, as our campers and counselors learned this past week at Bishop Claggett Center while they studied stories from the book of Daniel, through it all, God is with us. They learned that whether things are changing or we need help or we're afraid or we're lonely – even when we're being bullied – God is always with us, through it all. God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, helps us to know how to pray, even when praying can challenge us.
So. . .what if we said to God, “God, I want bullying to stop – and I want it to help it stop. God, I want praying to start – and sometimes, I need your help to start praying. Help me, God, to pray for bullies and for anyone who feels like an enemy. Help me, like you helped Daniel, to pray.”
What would happen, in our lives and in our world, if that was our prayer?
—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
July 1, 2012