Y OU MAY BE FAMILIAR with today’s Scripture. Many Bible versions give it a subtitle of “Jesus walks on the water.” And once you’ve read it you know that Jesus did … and Peter tried … and … he didn’t do so well at it!
But nestled into the beginning of the story are a few verses that will be our focus today.
22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone … .”
The immediately refers back to the story of Jesus feeding five thousand. Immediately after feeding five thousand, Jesus sends the disciples ahead of him by boat, dismissed the crowds, and … goes off by himself to pray.
At this point, it was late in the day of what I call one of Jesus’ very busy days. The day, as it is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew 12, 13, and 14, begins with the story about Jesus declaring that he is the Lord of the Sabbath and teaching that whoever does the will of (his) father in heaven is his brother and sister and mother.
And he leaps parables. How many of these do you know?
■ The story of the sower and the seeds falling on different kinds of soil
■ Weeds growing up among wheat
■ The mustard seed being the smallest of all seed, growing to a tree for the birds of the air to perch
■ The yeast being worked through all the dough
■ The hidden pearl of great value
■ The net full of fish of all kinds
■ The prophet not being recognized in his hometown
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AFTER ALL OF THIS MINISTRY, Jesus gets word that his cousin John (John the Baptist) had been beheaded. It is then, after receiving that news, that Jesus first tried to withdraw by boat privately to a solitary place. (Matthew 14:3)
But crowds followed him, the disciples have their doubts, and he feeds over 5,000.
What a day. We’d be ready to simply call it a night.
But Jesus sends the disciples out for a boat ride, tells the crowds, look, its closing time, and … Jesus stays up to pray.
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SO WHAT DOES that look like, to step away and pray? It’s a catchy phrase. Preached on same Scripture 14 years ago, with the same sermon title, and a couple of people are still saying it from time to time. Any of you remember the phrase?
I’d like to share some examples of how I have experienced “step away and pray” in recent years. And interestingly, you’ll find that the stepping away often takes place right where you are. Not necessarily physically stepping away, but, well … here are some examples.
This past calendar year, my life has been full of lots of opportunities for prayers.
I was sharing some of the things that have happened, and a friend said to me, “you have had a year.” I was comforting to have someone acknowledge my reality.
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LAST FEBRUARY, while sipping soda with my dad at Sonic, I got a call that Philip was being taken to the ER. I prayed aloud, not having any idea that Phil had died and been brought back to life after having a cardiac arrest. So I stepped away from my visit with my dad and prayed while driving. Dad prayed, too.
For many years, whenever I have heard an ambulance or other emergency vehicle, I have prayed wherever I am, at that very moment, for the people responding to the emergency and for the people experiencing it. Stepping away from whatever I am doing, if only for 30 seconds to lift people up in prayer. Do others of you do that? Try it.
When my parents moved to assisted living last June, several of you helped Philip and I to pack up their life. Some of you have done this. You know the piles. This is going to storage, this will be donated, save this for the granddaughter, and this pile — some of those things could have been put in the dumpster 20 years ago!
I stood in the empty house, exhausted and emotional, and gave thanks for the 24 years of life and love that Karl and Brenda shared there. And I asked God to bless the space for it to be a blessing for the next people who would call that house their home. In the midst of the move, I stepped away and prayed.
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IN OCTOBER, when my dad took his journey from here to heaven, of course I prayed lots of prayers. But one thing in particular I want to share with you. A friend texted me a short article from The Institute for the Study of Birth, Breath, and Death.
“Expected Death — When someone dies, the first thing to do is nothing. Don’t run out and call the nurse. Don’t pick up the phone. Take a deep breath and be present in the magnitude of the moment.”
There’s more to the article. I can email you a copy. The morning my dad took his last breath, things did happen quickly. My niece and her fiancé were with him the moment he took his last breath. The assisted-living nurse quickly attended to him, maybe sooner than the institute would suggest. But then my mom and I sat on the edge of her bed. We didn’t speak any words for some time. Our hearts were lifted in prayer, present in the moment. We sat still and prayed.
Shortly after “Karl with a K” died, “the” property sold. We signed a contract for the sale of what some of you know as “The Forty.” The whole property, including the three homes where Mike and Lynn, Mark and Tresa, and Phil and I lived, had sold. Or was in the legal process of selling. This time we paid people to help us pack up! And we still haven’t found the onions. Once again, we made the piles of what to store, donate, give to someone or trash as Phil and I moved into a rental and most of our stuff moved to a storage unit.
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THE “STEP AWAY AND PRAY” story at this point is about my best friend from high school. She’s a Christian, a church-goer, a woman of strong faith, and a private prayer. So much had happened in just a few months. Tears were flowing as I spoke to her over the phone, she in Connecticut, me in Foley. And this was before I knew that our cat would die in December, Mom would be hospitalized with COVID in the beginning of January and the senior pastor would retire at the end of January. As my friend said, I’ve had a year.
But it was then that Amy asked if she could pray for me. She made excuses about me being the pastor and she had never prayed with anyone over the phone, but she wanted to pray for me. And she went on to pray comforting, faith filled, loving words that filled me with peace and hope. They were beautiful words. They were words God wanted me to hear.
I have prayed with people over the phone countless times. I used to tell someone that I’d pray for them, or I’d put them on the church prayer list. And I would. But someone once asked me if they could pray for me while we were talking on the phone. I’m sorry I don’t remember who that was, buy I’m grateful for the example they set and the lives they have since touched, mine included.
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STOPPING TO PRAY with someone immediately, if possible, can be a moving experience. You can thank the Holy Spirit for being present over a cell phone, or in the grocery aisle, or in the fellowship hall. You can email a prayer. You can also text prayers. I have stood at the pharmacy counter and prayed a brief prayer with my eyes open and walked away so the next person in line could be helped.
Some of you may think, “Well, of course, Jody Beth can pray with people because she’s a pastor, or she’s had experience, or she’s just good at it. Amy is a not a pastor and she had never prayed aloud with anyone. And it’s not about us and what we say, it’s about God speaking through us, through the Holy Spirit. Everyone here today, everyone worshiping online, can pray with and for others.
Many people pray before getting out of bed. Some people pray, Lord help me to be able to get out of bed! We pray at meal times; we pray at the end of the day.
Scripture says to pray without ceasing. It really is possible, as we step away and pray through our day.
For those of you on Facebook, Pastor Kim Vanbrimmer provides a weekly 15-minute online prayer service. It is at 7 p.m. every Thursday. There’s music, Scripture, sharing of joys and concerns, and … prayer. I encourage you to visit that service.
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SO … BACK TO JESUS when he stepped away to pray. While he was praying, everything didn’t work itself out. When he went out to the lake, there was more to do. When we spend time in pray with God, we are strengthened not only for the days ahead of us, but we can then reach out to others, in their rocky boats.
This week, spend time in prayer. Pray for family and friends. Pray for strangers. Pray for the driver who cuts you off on 59. Pray in your car. Pray at school (yes, you can do that). Pray on the phone. Send a prayer text or note card. Pray at the game or practice. Pray for our congregation in this exciting time of transition.
And as Karl said, “pray for all those in need of prayer.”
Wherever you are this week, whatever you are doing this week …
Step away. And pray. Amen.