“Repairing Our Foundations: Prayer as Advocacy”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
29 September, 2019
Week 4 of 8 of Holy Habits: Prayer
Isaiah 58:1-10

In the months of September and October, our congregation is exploring the Holy Habit[1] of Prayer.  We’re taking eight weeks to go a little deeper into what we know about the purpose, practice, and potential outcomes of prayer.

In previous weeks, some of you have heard me cite the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard, who observed that “the function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”  As we deepen our relationship with God in prayer, we will find ourselves changing, making us stronger: more peaceful, more loving, more patient, compassionate, resilient, and hopeful.  When we pray regularly, speaking and listening to God as a daily holy habit, we become more fully the person God created and intends for us to be.

Of course, as we learn by reading the Scriptures, God is ultimately concerned with the needs of the world, especially with the needs of the vulnerable.  The poor, the oppressed, those who are disenfranchised and squeezed to the margins.  It may not always appear that this is God’s greatest concern.  But that’s because God has given human beings dominion, power over and responsibility to care for the rest of creation.  That way, we could be partners with the Creator in tending to all this beauty and splendor.  But God also gave us autonomy, free will.  The liberty to choose whether we will follow God’s ways, or our own.  Though our human ways tend to be self-centered, short-sighted, and ultimately destructive of ourselves, and of the earth.

That’s why, in Old Testament times, God spoke through prophets—people who recognized the futility of human ways and tried to get others to see it, too.  Through them, people of faith have been repeatedly reminded that God yearns for us to look out for the least and the lost—not only so they can be well, but so that we ourselves can be whole.  The prophets cried out in prayer to God on behalf of the people.  They also listened for God’s voice and served as God’s messengers, responding with proclamations about what God wanted the people to do in order for their collective suffering to be relieved.

Eventually, God came to us in the person of Jesus Christ, who modeled the sort of prayer and relationship with God that saves us.  When we’re following Jesus’ and the prophets’ examples, our prayer results in, and takes the form of, advocacy for the marginalized.

This week, our church is participating with seven other houses of worship in Nashua in praying together and raising awareness about the urgent need for affordable housing[2].

Here in Hollis, it’s possible to be oblivious to the challenges many people face with regard to finding and keeping affordable housing.  We don’t see homeless people on our streets, though there are members of our community who are sheltering family or friends because of the affordable housing shortage in this state.

According to the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority’s 2019 report, the median rent for a 2-bedroom dwelling in this area is $1,456/month.  At that rate, following the established affordability guideline of spending one-third of income on housing, a family needs at least $58,200/year.  That’s a 40-hour-a-week job at $28/hour with no vacation, or two incomes that come to that total.  But the study showed that the median income of renters in this region is only $44,700.[3]

Then, there’s the issue of availability.  New Hampshire’s rental vacancy rate is less than 1%.  But studies have shown that a “balanced market” needs between 5-7% vacancy.  Such limited supply naturally drives the cost of rent higher.  In the past three years alone, rents have surged 26% in this state, but median incomes haven’t risen by more than 3%.[4]  In other words, what may have been barely affordable three years ago is now out of reach for many renters.  Families are forced to make hard choices, especially when a crisis hits in the form of unexpected health care, or repair costs, or other emergencies that can topple a precarious budget.

On July 27, there was an article in the New Hampshire Union Leader highlighting the housing crisis.  In it, they told the story of Mary and Barry Laber, who happen to be members of the Nashua Presbyterian Church.  They’ve lived in Nashua for many years, but they’re still making mortgage payments on their two-bedroom ranch and don’t have enough equity to qualify for a reverse mortgage.  Barry was recently diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, and some days doesn’t know his wife’s name or where he is.  They want to downsize and remain in Nashua where the surroundings are familiar to Barry, but the market-rate rents are too high.  “’There is no hope for us,” 72-year old Mary said. ‘We are taking money out of our savings every month to cover our bills.  That will last maybe 10 to 12 months more.  Then we’ll have nothing.’” [5]  They’ll be forced to sell their home and move to an unfamiliar place, probably outside of New Hampshire.  I know members of our own congregation who have had to move away from this area because it became too expensive to maintain their home and property taxes, and there aren’t enough affordable smaller homes or apartments available.

And there simply aren’t enough smaller homes being built.  Elissa Margolin, director of Housing Action NH, a coalition of housing developers, housing financiers, property managers and others, explained, “New Hampshire communities are held back by lack of resources, costly regulations and the lack of municipal support or NIMBYism.  We need to invest in public-private partnerships, decrease the regulatory burdens and move from a not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) culture to a yes-in-my-backyard (YIMBY) culture.”[6]

This is a challenging social issue that followers of Jesus need to be thinking and praying about, because it has to do with the welfare of the needy and those on the margins.  And that’s what Jesus’ whole life was about: addressing challenging social issues, especially the sort that left poor, or otherwise vulnerable, and marginalized people believing that they were not equally worthy of life, health, and dignity.

In our Scripture lesson (which my clergy colleagues and their congregations are all reflecting on this weekend as well), we hear God lamenting through Isaiah that the people believe they’re praying and being righteous, but they’re really only serving themselves.  Isaiah goes back and forth, representing first the people’s lament, and then God’s.  “Why do we fast, but you do not see?” the prophet cries in the voice of the people. “Why humble ourselves, but you don’t notice?”[7]

The people were complaining that God wasn’t responding to them, even when they “faithfully” observed their fasting day.  They were abstaining from food, and prostrating themselves before the heavens, making grand physical gestures to get God’s attention.  But their situation wasn’t improving.

God’s response was: “Look, on your fast day you all are doing whatever you want.  You stop eating for a while, and in your ‘hangry’ (hungry+angry/irritated) state, you oppress your workers.  You beat each other up with words and fists, and then you say, ‘I’m not eating, so that God will know how sincere I am about what I want.’  Your version of fasting isn’t persuading me of your sincere desire to know my heart or follow my ways.  Do you really think I like watching you bending and scraping, lying down melodramatically in sackcloth and ashes?  Do you think I want you to go through some exaggerated empty motions?  How can you demand change in the world, if you’re not willing to change yourself?”[8]

What did Kierkegaard rightly observe?  The purpose of prayer is not to change God, but for our own hearts and minds to be changed.

Through Isaiah, God continues: “Do you not already know, have you not understood?  Is this not the fast that Ichoose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”[9]

There’s no doubt: there is a real fasting, a willing sacrifice in what God asks of us in faith.  More, even, than denying our bellies a bit of food.  We undeniably forfeit things when we obey the spiritual direction that God has given regarding caring for our neighbor.

But what we discover is that the blessing to ourselves and to others, far outweighs our sacrifice.  We are healed and strengthened in ways we didn’t even know we needed it.  As Jesus showed, it is in unselfish acts of personal sacrifice that we perfectly demonstrate our love for God and neighbor.  “Then,” God says through Isaiah, when you’ve practiced a righteous fast, “then your light will shine like the dawning sun, and you will quickly be healed.”[10]  We may not have known we needed healing, but we’ll feel stronger and more whole as a result of our faithfulness.

What God has always wanted is for us to allow the Spirit to work through our hands, our feet, our activities to transform and re-form the world, to help us more closely experience God’s original vision for our lives.

But since before Isaiah’s time, through Jesus’ day, right up to the present, human beings have continued to struggle with the idea of sacrifice, because we’re prone to a mentality of scarcity—focusing on what we don’t have, or what we think we might need—instead of acknowledging our abundance and fearlessly sharing from it.  Human beings have always hoped it might be enough to offer up a kind thought, a sympathetic or pitying glance toward the those who are struggling, and carry on as if that was all the power we possess.

But Jesus made it clear in his parable in Matthew 25, that in order to experience the joy and freedom we long for, we need to do more than just think kind thoughts.  In the end, Jesus said, when the people will be sorted according to who are welcomed into heaven and who aren’t, some people will cry out with surprise, and others with consternation: “But, Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and took care of you (or didn’t!)?’  Then the Master will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, whenever you helped (or didn’t help) any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it to me.’”[11]

Friends, I’m not going to pretend that the problem of affordable housing is an easy one to solve.  Or that I, or the faith leaders I’m working with and our congregations, have the answers.  There is much work to do to repair our foundations—in society at large, as well as in our faith communities.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed.

But what I do know is that we can do something.  At the very least, we can pray.  Like the prophets, we can cry out to God on behalf of those who are suffering.  But we shouldn’t let our cries stop with God—because God already knows their plight.  We should also make our voices heard to people in positions of power in our society who can effect changes.

We can work on checking our own impulses so that when our first concern is (quite naturally, given our culture’s values), “How will it affect my personal bottom line, if I advocate for my needy neighbor to have housing in my backyard?”  We can work at responding to those sorts of normal, self-interested first-thoughts with deeper second thoughts: “How would Jesus respond if he was in my shoes, and how can I be more like him?”

We can educate ourselves about the challenges facing the poorer workers and residents in our state, and collaborate with others to try to overcome the obstacles to change.  We can call our legislators, our elected representatives, and ask them what they’re doing and what they think we might do in our local communities.

Some of you have already taken action by participating in Habitat for Humanity builds in Nashua, or contributing to the Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter.  There are a few opportunities to get involved listed on your Takeaway page, and you should feel free to talk with me if you’re interested in other ideas.

The main concept I’d like you take with you this morning is that prayer isn’t merely a passive activity where we sit, quietly unload our chattering thoughts at God, and then move on.  Prayer is about becoming aware of God’s presence within us—listening to, and being moved by God, allowing our prayers to make us instruments of God’s will in the world, helping the most vulnerable in our sphere of influence.

Perhaps St. Teresa of Avila said it best: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.  Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”  May everything we do with these bodies and our lives be faithful acts of prayer.  Amen.

Click HERE for The Takeaway, Prayer – Week 4
“Repairing Our Foundations: Prayer as Advocacy”

[1] See http://www.HolyHabits.org for all ten of the Holy Habits we are hoping to explore.

[2] Including Temple Beth Abraham, Nashua Presbyterian, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Main Street and Arlington Street UMCs, Christ the King Lutheran, and First Church UCC.

[3] New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority 2019 Residential Cost Survey Report, June 2019.

[4] Ibid.

[5] New Hampshire Union Leader, July 27, 2019. https://www.unionleader.com/news/business/whats_working/thousands-more-homes-needed-annually-to-grow-nh-workforce/article_ae00c0c8-96fd-59fb-b87e-a9faf4b61207.html

[6] Ibid.

[7] Isaiah 52:2, NRSV

[8] Isaiah 12:4-5, my paraphrase

[9] Isaiah 52:6-7, NRSV (emphasis mine)

[10] Isaiah 58:8, CEV

[11] Matthew 25:44-45, my paraphrase

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC