Acts 1:15-17, 21-26+Psalm 1+1 John 5:9-13+John 17:6-19
Thoughts and prayers. It’s a phrase we often hear in response to some great sadness or tragedy, but lately, it has been used far more cynically. Thoughts and prayers are not enough if they are a cover for inaction on, for instance, gun violence. Thoughts and prayers are not sufficient as a response to a tragedy that could have been avoided if someone had just an ounce of courage. #thoughtsandprayers
I don’t happen to think that thoughts and prayers are as worthless as some apparently do. I absolutely believe in the power of prayer to change the course of history, to turn hearts and minds to God, to unite us in our zeal to assure the flourishing of all people. Following the logic of Pope Francis, however, prayer without action is not enough. “You pray for the hungry then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” You pray for an end to mass shootings and then you pass gun legislation that keeps guns out of the hands of people who should not have them. That’s how prayer works.
As a church person, and someone who has been a church person all of my life, people often look to me to pray, especially as an ordained official hired holy person. I love to pray and am always happy to serve that role at a gathering, but I don’t have to be the one doing all the public praying around here. Anyone can pray.
Jesus prayed. A lot. We often read about how Jesus would get away, hustle into the desert or up a mountain to spend time with God. It’s a great model for us, even if we can’t pick up and disappear for a little while. I hope that, over the course of the past 14 months or so, you have set up a little sacred spot in your home. It doesn’t have to be fancy – a chair or even a cushion on the floor, a candle, some object that is special to you. That can be your getaway place, where you go to spend time with God. Once you do that for a while, you will miss it when you don’t, and it’s a good way to “practice” praying. The more you talk with God, the easier it gets to talk with God.
But back to Jesus.
In this 17th chapter of John, Jesus did not get away to pray by himself. No, he’s right here with the disciples at the final meal they shared. For a couple of chapters, he’s been giving them reminders about all that he has taught them because he knows the end is nigh. But once he is done with all of the instructions, he begins to pray for them.
There was a time in my life when someone praying for me made me squirm. What does this person know about me? How do they know what I need or what God wants for me? Fortunately, I outgrew that discomfort, because to have someone pray for me means that they are holding me in God’s presence and asking for God to care for me, to take care of my needs, to bless me, to love me. And that is the prayer Jesus is making on behalf of his disciples. He knows it is not going to be easy for them, and he prays for God’s protection.
One thing we know about the eleven who remained with Jesus that night is that all but one is believed to have died a martyr’s death. John, the author of this gospel, died of old age in Ephesus. The rest, including the new apostle, Matthias, about whom we read in Acts today, died for their faith. So, what happened? Were Jesus’s prayers not answered? Why should we pray if God doesn’t even answer Jesus’s prayers?
Well, I think this is a misunderstanding of what prayer actually is. God is not a heavenly Santa Claus to whom we take our laundry list of wishes, and God then takes the list and checks it twice. Prayer is more like a relationship, sitting in silence and tuning our hearts toward God, basking in God’s love, and offering the deepest desires of our hearts. The promotion may not come. The diagnosis may be terminal. The marriage may be broken. The death may come. And God is there, with us in all of it. And if we have nurtured a life of prayer, we know in our gut that we are not alone no matter what the world throws at us.
From time to time, I return to the story of Job, the supposedly patient one which is a much of a misnomer as is “doubting” Thomas. Job was not patient. He railed against God for the terrible calamities that had befallen him. And yet in the very first chapter after the first of the great losses he suffered, Job could say, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’ (Job 1:21).
We humans are inclined to blame God when bad things happen and take credit to ourselves for the good. But when it seems that the world is out of control – Jerusalem consumed with violence, India suffering a plague of epic proportions, mass shootings almost a daily occurrence in this country – I am glad to know that we have not been abandoned, that no matter what joys are sorrows come our way, God is with us. This is why Jesus offered this prayer on the night of his arrest: “protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11).
What good news is this, to be one with God and one another? There is no power on earth that can shake us. We are, as the psalmist said, “like trees planted by streams of water,” (Psalm 1:3). Our roots are nourished and strengthened by drinking deeply from those streams of living water through prayer and worship and service.
In the quiet time following this sermon – space that I am going to make a little longer today – I invite you to close your eyes and focus on God’s presence here in this place. Bring to mind someone for whom you would like to pray, even if that is yourself. And hold those prayers of your heart before God. And then I’ll invite you to be bold and tell the person you prayed for that you did that. To know that someone is praying for you is a powerful reminder of that unity we have, that unity that Jesus prayed for on our behalf.