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Have We Kicked Jesus out of Schools?

Rev. Angie L. Mabry
Genesis 18: 20-32; Luke 11: 1-13; Colossians2: 6-19
July 24, 2022

On May 24, 2022, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos somehow worked his way into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX with an AR-15 style rifle, and began shooting. Nineteen children and two adults were killed, and eighteen people were injured. Ramos, himself, also died, of police fire. It was the third-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history (behind the Virginia Tech University shooting in 2007 and the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in 2012), and the deadliest in Texas.

Naturally, questions began flying. Who was the shooter? Why did he do it? How did he get into the school? Where were the police? And many more. Finger-pointing and blame were not far behind. It didn’t take long for a Christian to say, “This wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t kicked Jesus out of schools.”

Whether knowingly or not, that person would be referring to Engel v. Vitale, “a 1962 landmark U.S. Supreme Court Case that ruled it is unconstitutional for state officials to compose an official school prayer and encourage its recitation in public schools, due to violation of the First Amendment.” The decision has been criticized for its broadness in holding that a showing of coercion is not required to demonstrate a violation of [the separation of Church and State].

Engel v. Vitale has been hotly debated since its decision, including as recently as earlier this month, when the High Court sided with former Washington State high school football coach Joseph Kennedy. Against school district policy and despite provision of private spaces, he prayed on the field after every football game, and invited students to join him.”

The tragedies, students, sports activities, and all situations involving humans in our schools are, most certainly standin’ in the need of prayer. To suggest that the absence of publicly led prayer at schools has effectively kicked Jesus out and allowed tragedy and argument in, though, is at the least dramatic, and theologically inaccurate to be sure.

What is really going on?

“We worry a great deal about the problem of church and state,” wrote the great Jewish theologian, philosopher, and civil rights activist Rabbi Abraham Heschel in his posthumously published book, I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology. He continues, “Now what about the church and God? Sometimes there seems to be a greater separation between the church and God than between the church and state.”

The Church has been declining for decades, and American Christendom has long since passed. With 29% of Americans labeling themselves “religiously unaffiliated” as of December 2021, we have statistical proof that Christianity does not hold the cultural sway that it once did. And, the Church herself seems to have lost her way – sexual abuse cover ups, narcissistic, toxic pastors, and a denomination being more concerned with how she might be perceived than asking humbly for forgiveness of structural sins, to offer a few contemporary examples.

We’re feeling loss. Loss of life, loss of our way of life, loss of love, loss of certainty, and loss of control. And while it’s natural when tragedy strikes and our politics rev us up to strike outward in blame, and reach outward to reign in the chaos, the direction we need to go is inward, connecting to God in prayer. Our texts for today provide guidance.

Connecting to God in prayer is private. He, meaning Jesus, “was praying in a certain place,” begins our gospel lesson. The Synoptic Gospels often report Jesus withdrawing to pray, where he could be alone with God, giving God is full attention. Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them to pray, and the first part of his response is Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. In the corresponding text of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6, Jesus emphasizes the importance of private prayer:

5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Connecting to God in prayer is about a personal relationship. In a commentary on Luke 11: 1-13, Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras offers that the primary purpose of the text is the Fatherhood of God – helping his disciples see and relate to God as a loving parent. Fathers in Greco-Roman culture “enjoyed complete control over their children and grandchildren. For example, a father decides whether his newborn child will be raised in the family, sold, or killed.”

Jesus teaches his disciples to begin their prayer by addressing God as Father, which establishes a parent-child relationship. And this father, unlike the ones to whom they were born, is attentive – opening the door when they knock; generous – giving good gifts to those who ask; forgives us of our sins, protects us from times of trial; and provides all that we need. This heavenly parent can be trusted, and we can be confident in approaching.

We are encouraged to be persistent in connecting to God in prayer. Both our Hebrew Scripture and New Testament lessons speak of persistence. Moses has something to say. He waits until the angels of God have left, and he is standing alone in God’s presence to petition God with what is on his heart. Bothered by what destroying Sodom and Gomorrah says about God’s nature, Moses presses. Will you wipe away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are 50, 40, 30. 20 or even 10? A benefit of persistence is maintaining, if not strengthening, our connection to and relationship with God. When we persist, we keep retuning to the Source of all that is.

The fear that we could kick Jesus out of schools by prohibiting public prayer within them speaks more about how religious Americans feel their country should be than it does about our love for our children, our desire safe communities, prayer, God, and our relationship with God. It speaks to misplaced anxiety and efforts to control when much of what we see is society unraveling. It speaks to a tenuous faith that second guesses whether Jesus – Emmanuel, God with us – might truly not be with us until the end of the age, and wonders, with all that we hear on the news, whether Jesus really has overcome the world.

“We worry a great deal about the problem of church and state. Now what about the church and God? Sometimes there seems to be a greater separation between the church and God than between the church and state.”

I am the church. You are the church. We are the church together. We may wonder where God is amidst transition and tragedy, and feel distant, or maybe even separated from the One who created, redeemed, and sustains us. Nevertheless, we have not lost, nor will we ever lose the privilege to carry everything to God in prayer. Because Jesus is our friend. We couldn’t kick him out of our lives if we tried.

In the holy name of the One who was, who is, and is yet to come. Amen.

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