Sermon Series-” Don’t Leave Before the Miracle” Sermon title- “A Few People Getting Together to Pray” Acts 1:12-14 April 30, 2017

May 11, 2017

Steve McCloskey
In the mid-1850s, the enthusiasm of the California Gold Rush had swept across the nation all the way to the City of New York. The city experienced a boom in economic growth and wealth. But along with this growth in wealth, Church attendance seriously declined. Young people growing up in New York were enticed by the love of money and had little interest in the love of God. Materialism was thick in the air.
A Dutch Reformed Church in Manhattan wanted to respond to this spiritual slump in the city. So they hired a minister who had only recently come to faith himself to be a missionary to the unchurched masses. His name was Jeremiah Lanphier. At first, None of his evangelistic efforts were very successful. But, in September of 1857 the new minister decided that he would start something called the “noon-day prayer” every Wednesday in the upstairs of his church building. It was held during the lunch hour between noon and one. He posted some signs and handed out some flyers. Anyone was invited to join, even if they could only join for a few minutes.
The very first Wednesday, he opened the doors of the building and a half hour went by with Jeremiah Lanphier praying alone. Then, at 12:30 he heard the footsteps of a man climbing the stairs. A few minutes later, a total of six different men had joined Jeremiah Lanphier. The next Wednesday there were at least 14 people. The third week there were between 30 and 40 people showed-up. These prayer meetings were so encouraging that they decided to meet together daily. The next day attendance increased even more. Soon they filled the whole church building.
Merchants, working class folks, and businessmen joined together each day at noon: They prayed for their neighbors to come to faith in Christ, they prayed for family members and friends, and they sang together. They didn’t get together for discussions, they were there for prayer.

Not long after this though came the economic crash of 1857. The bubble of economic growth that started with the gold rush had finally burst. In New York City alone, 30,000 people had lost their jobs. Even beyond the economic catastrophe, the entire nation was deeply divided by the continuing injustice of slavery. And civil war loomed on the horizon. But these prayer meetings continued to grow.

The New York Times wrote about this dramatic movement in an editorial dated March 20, 1858:

“The great wave of religious excitement which is now sweeping over this nation, is one of the most remarkable movements since the reformation…. Churches are crowded…school-houses are turned into chapels; converts are numbered by the scores of thousands. In this City, we have beheld a sight which not the most enthusiastic fanatic for church-observances could ever have hoped to look upon; we have seen in a business-quarter of the City, in the busiest hours, assemblies of merchants, clerks and working-men, to the number of 5,000, gathered day after day for a simple and solemn worship. Similar assemblies we find in other portions of the City; a theatre is turned into a chapel; churches of all sects are open and crowded by day and night…. It is most impressive to think that over this great land tens and fifties of thousands of men and women are putting themselves at this time in a simple, serious way, the greatest question that can ever come before the human mind ‘What shall we do to be saved from sin?’”

Pastors were baptizing as many as 20,000 people every week. And it is estimated that between 1858-59, over one million people dedicated their lives to Christ. Did Jeremiah Lanphier have any idea what would happen as a result of starting this prayer meeting on Wednesdays? I doubt it, but all of this happened as a result of a few people coming together to pray.
But by 1859, this fire began to cool down and people’s enthusiasm waned. Nevertheless, three decades later, in March of 1887, another New Yorker named Mary Ellen Fairchild James called for a day of prayer for missions, and a group of Methodist women joined her. Two years later, some Baptists joined them and not long after that the Day of Prayer initiative expanded to Canada and the British Isles. Today, this movement continues to live on. It is led by women from a wide variety of denominations in over 170 countries on the first Friday of March every year since it began and it is called the World Day of Prayer. The motto of the movement is “informed prayer and prayerful action”. It brings women together across racial, cultural, and geographical boundaries and it empowers women to take a stand on a variety of issues of justice. In 1930, the movement began its tradition of having a different country host the event and write the theme for that year. The first country to host it outside of the US was Korea. Countries around the world have been hosts, last month it was held in the Philippines. But here we see what has become an ongoing ecumenical Christian movement started by a few women coming together to pray.
Today the World Day of Prayer continues to live on. And we can trace the roots of both these prayer movements not only to New York City in the 19th Century. But across 20 centuries to a single room in Jerusalem. Today’s scripture gives us a glimpse into that one room in Jerusalem.
Here we find Jesus’ closest followers back in the upper room. This is likely the same room that these same disciples had shared their last meal with Jesus. The gospel accounts tell us that the Risen Jesus had appeared to the disciples at various times, in unpredictable ways during a period of 40 days and that he had given them insight about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). The disciples had been told that a time would come in which they would soon be baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5). But here, in this upper room, we find these early followers of Jesus in an inbetween time. The Resurrected Jesus has departed from them, but they have not yet experienced the promise of Pentecost. They do not know what is ahead of them.
So what do we find the disciples doing? They didn’t return to their jobs as fishermen and tax collectors in Galilee, no. The scripture says that they went from the Mount of Olives where Jesus had given them instruction and they went back to this upper room. The text is clear that this group included both men and women. What did they do when they gathered? It says that they “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer”. They were “all in one accord”.
This sets the stage for the rest of the book of Acts. It is only because of this continued gathering of Jesus’ disciples, that they were in one place, ready to experience the move of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It is only because they were together in this one place at Pentecost that they were able to testify to pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem about Jesus Christ and thousands were added to their number. And it is because of those same disciples who continued to gather together then in Jerusalem that we are gathered here today in Philadelphia. All of this happened because of a few people coming together to pray.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said that “There is a tremendous strength that is growing in the world through sharing together, praying together, suffering together, and working together.” In many respects, her words are a summary of the picture of the early church that we see in the book of Acts: we see the followers of Jesus: sharing, praying, suffering, and working together, forging a new identity in the midst of an Empire that opposed them.
Right now, like the disciples gathered together in an upper room, we find ourselves in an inbetween time. Oxford Circle is sorting through several things: questions about conference affiliation, questions about sexuality, and even the search for a new pastor. My family and I also find ourselves in a transition time; trying to discern where God is calling us next after I graduate from seminary.
Although it is my last official Sunday here, Jaynie, Jacob, and I will carry memories of you with us for the rest of our lives. It is because of you that my son gets excited when he hears the word “church”! If you haven’t noticed, he is filled with joy dancing to the worship team’s music. He’s probably the most expressive guy in the room!
Jaynie has told me several times about how so many of the women here have been an encouragement and an example to her. And I have had the great fortune of getting to experience several different facets of the ministry that this congregation is engaged in: Sunday School classes, the Healing Hearts Club after school program that meets here every Wednesday, OCCCDA, the Christmas Toy Store, and even the joy of attending some Church Council meetings. Since the time that Jaynie and I first visited this church in 2014, we have been continuously impressed with you. And as I am someone who became a Mennonite as an adult, and I’m now pursuing ministry as a Mennonite pastor, I can say that you are a fantastic example to me of what a Mennonite Church should look like, live like, and love like.
No church I’ve ever visited is perfect; But I can say that while Oxford Circle Mennonite Church may not be perfect, you are excellent. You are salt and light to the community right here in Philly and beyond and I pray that you will continue to be.
Part of the reason I came here was to learn how to be a pastor under Leonard Dow. I hadn’t ever met Lynn until she interviewed me for this position. But because of pastor Leonard’s sabbatical and resignation, I ended up meeting and learning from Lynn as my supervisor. She was great at answering the wide variety of questions I threw at her, and she invested a lot of time in preparing me to be a pastor. And although she is not here today, I must tell you, I couldn’t have asked for a better supervisor. Right now, you have a great pastor here at Oxford Circle and her name is Lynn Sawyer Parks.
So, I must encourage you, as you and I are both going through a transition. As you and I find ourselves in an “inbetween” time, let us be like those early disciples gathered together in a room, constantly devoting ourselves to prayer.
The artist, author, and minister Jan L. Richardson wrote that, “to follow God does not often mean traveling with certainty about where God will lead us. Rather, following God propels us to be present to the place where we are, for this is the very place where God shows up.”
I do not presume to know how God is moved to act in response to our prayers. I do not presume to think that if more people are praying together, that our prayers are more persuasive to God. But I can tell you this: if we devote ourselves to gathering together in collective prayer, it will move our hearts to be closer to one another. And as we pray for one another and share each other’s concerns with one another: It will move our will and our desires to be more in agreement with the Spirit of God. Like the early church, it will bring us together in one accord.
This community has need of prayer. Every day there are plenty of concerns that this congregation can lift up for one another to the Lord together. You can come together every Wednesday in the prayer room at noon or next Saturday, May 13 right here. [If you need details you can talk to Petra or Tim].
Who knows what will happen as you gather together in prayer? Jeremiah Lanphier didn’t imagine that he would start a revival across the nation when he made space in a church to pray Wednesdays at noon. Mary Ellen Fairchild James didn’t imagine that she would start a prayer movement that would last over a century and spread to over 170 countries. And some disciples in Jerusalem gathered in an upper room never had he even heard of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But here we are today. What will God do through us for future generations as you are faithful to come together in prayer?

If it’s true that Families that pray together, stay together
Then I believe that if Oxford Circle is a family that prays, then Oxford Circle will be a family that stays. Amen.