Here’s a podcast of the sermon I preached last Sunday, September 27, 2015, from James 5:13-20, titled “The Place, Purpose and Power of Prayer.” I hope this message is an encouragement for you in your prayer life.
If you think the Supreme Court’s ruling on public prayer is an unqualified win for Christians, you might want to reconsider.
On May 5, the United States Supreme Court ruled that “ceremonial” prayers opening government meetings do not violate the Constitution’s First Amendment.
The justices split 5-4 into the familiar conservative versus liberal wings, with Justice Anthony Kennedy providing the deciding vote and writing the opinion.
Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy noted that prayers at public events enjoy a long and accepted history in this country. He also noted that these “ceremonial” prayers are part of the pomp-and-circumstance of government proceedings, and are meant to lend an air of solemnity and gravitas to the occasion.
My own community of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, along with many others, will find much to applaud in today’s Supreme Court ruling. Several months ago, our local Board of Supervisors faced a similar challenge when it was sued for allowing sectarian prayers to open the meetings of the Board of Supervisors. Now that the community of Greece, New York has been vindicated, many will believe a celebration is in order.
But before we join the party, shouldn’t Baptists everywhere be concerned with the ruling’s fine print?
Historically, Baptists have struggled to keep government out of religious practice. However, with the Supreme Court’s ruling today, the majority of justices not only redefined prayer as part of the ceremony of civic life, they also set limits on its place in the public square.
Justice Kennedy referred to the prayers in question as “ceremonial.” In the written opinion he states, “The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers.”
Do we as Baptists define public prayer as part of the ceremony of the moment? Is civic prayer a public protocol like the Pledge of Allegiance or “Hail to the Chief?” Or do we Baptists, along with other Christians, define prayer as the invocation of Divine presence, blessing, or guidance?
Furthermore, I have never heard a Baptist or other religious leader suggest that the purpose of public prayer is to acknowledge “religious leaders and the institutions they represent.” But Justice Kennedy writes that this is the acceptable “purpose and effect” of civic prayer.
If that were not enough to cause us concern, Justice Kennedy draws clear lines defining the acceptable content of public prayers.
Kennedy writes, “In rejecting the suggestion that legislative prayer must be nonsectarian, the Court does not imply that no constraints remain on its content. The relevant constraint derives from its place at the opening of legislative sessions, where it is meant to lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the Nation’s heritage. Prayer that is solemn and respectful in tone, that invites lawmakers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing, serves that legitimate function. If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort. That circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court.”
In other words, civic prayer has to fit a pattern of acceptability as defined by the Supreme Court. This test of acceptability includes prayer’s place in the opening ceremony, its “tone,” its content, and its purpose.
While polite etiquette might rule out prayer that is not “respectful in tone,” Justice Kennedy also ruled out prayer meant to call lawmakers to confession and repentance. The prophet Elijah would find himself unwelcomed to offer prayer in Greece, New York, just like he was unwelcomed to offer judgment on King Ahab and Queen Jezebel in his day.
Before we celebrate a victory for prayer today, we need to ask ourselves as pastors and religious leaders if we find it acceptable to craft our public prayers by criteria defined by the Supreme Court.
With the Supreme Court’s ruling, Christians are now in an ironic position — we have the right to offer public prayers which have no heavenly purpose.
We got good news this morning from the surgeon who performed the biopsy surgery. My biopsy was negative for lymphoma. They attribute the PET scan results to “reactive” lymph glands which can be the result of an infection.
Possibly the infection came from the virus I had in January. In any event that seems to narrow it to an auto-immune disorder. I still am struggling with the symptoms of numbness in hands and feet, and some loss of activity in legs and some body functions.
I have a follow-up with the Duke hematologist next Tuesday, then my neurologist at the end of April. I appreciate your continuing prayers for whatever the next steps are. During this Easter season an “alleluia” or two is our response to this good news!
After almost 3 weeks in hospitals, we are finally home! We’re thankful to God whose Spirit sustained us, to friends and family whose concern encouraged us, and to skilled doctors and nurses whose training helped us. Thank you again for all the prayers, cards, visits, calls, home repairs, and everything else. We love and thank God for you. Come see us…at home!
I may be going home this afternoon! I have one more plasma pheresis treatment and they want to watch me for awhile after that, but barring any problems we should go home late this afternoon. (Or tomorrow at the latest but I’m counting on today!)
The good news is that there is noticeable improvement. I now have some reflex response in both legs, which I did not have yesterday. I can stand and walk more steadily, too, so hopefully whatever I have is leaving gradually.
I see the surgeon and hematologist next week for follow up and will get biopsy results then. Until then, we are grateful to God for these hopeful signs, and to you for praying for us. See you in Chatham!
The biopsy went well today. The surgeon was able to take three lymph glands from my left groin. Lab results will be available in 2-3 days, so by Thursday or Friday we ought to know something.
Tomorrow I have another plasma pheresis treatment. Physical therapy is also scheduled to work with me. Both physical therapy and the plasma pheresis treatments have enabled me to walk better with a walker.
I keep reminding the doctors that I want to go home on Friday. Until then we’re here at Duke. God’s grace is indeed sufficient and his strength is made perfect in weakness. Thank you for your prayers.