I’m Praying for You

+ A sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on May 24, 2020 +

Texts: Acts 1:6-14; John 17:1-11, 15-21

Video: LINK

It seems people are praying more.
That’s according to a news article I read this week that one of our Holy Cross members shared with me.[1]
It noted a marked increase in prayer during the past couple months saying that Google searches for how to pray have “skyrocketed” and an increasing number of people have sought refuge in God or a higher power to help them through these challenging times.
Some researchers say that prayer can “actually…calm your nervous system, shutting down your fight or flight response. [That] it can make you less reactive to negative emotions and less angry.”
And I guess that makes sense, doesn’t it?
I mean, for millennia people of faith have been using prayer to center themselves, to quell their fears, and to seek divine guidance.
And in these days of loneliness and fear and uncertainty, I completely understand why more people would turn to prayer to help get through this pandemic.
Sometimes that’s all we can really do.

“Ascension” by Father Georges Saget, Keur Moussa Abbey, Senegal. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:KeurMoussaAutel.jpg

For instance, in our first reading from Acts, after Jesus ascended into heaven and the disciples were left on their own, did you hear what they did?
They went home and prayed.
For days.
Jesus told them to wait until the Holy Spirit arrived, wait for that time when they would be sent to all the ends of the earth as witnesses.
But until then they had to stay put and wait.
Tradition tells us it was nine days they waited in that strange in-between time, between Christ’s ascension, which we celebrated on Thursday, and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, which we’ll celebrate next week.
And in those nine days they devoted themselves to prayer.
Now admittedly, nine days seems like a cakewalk compared to day…whatever we’re on now, but after all they had seen, after all they had experienced, all the fears and joys and changes, as ready as they were to get to work, it seems remarkable that they were able to just wait.
To stay home and regroup, calm their nerves, to seek guidance and plan for the future, to pray.

Now I’ve already talked a lot about praying this morning, but I must admit that for a long time I had a rather tenuous relationship with prayer.
Or, to be clearer, I struggled with the idea of praying for something.
I mean, I’ve always been on board with worship, with reaching for the divine, for seeking calm and comfort and guidance when I prayed.
But praying for something, asking God to do something, seemed a little strange to me.
All too often it felt like a glorified wish list, like if I used the right words and asked the right way, Santa would give me some extra gifts.
Or it felt like an easy way to “deal” with a problem without ever really addressing it, like sending thoughts and prayers without taking any measurable action.
Or maybe it was like how nearly every queer person I know has been told my someone “I’m praying for you,” which really translates to “I hope you reject and hide your beautiful and God-given identity.”

Well, this uncertainty about prayer all came to a head in seminary when I was starting to worry that my unease about praying could well endanger my possibility of becoming a pastor.
I remember I went to one of my seminary professors and asked for guidance.
I told him how so often it felt like prayer was just performative or like we were trying to convince God to do something that we wanted that wouldn’t happen otherwise.
And while he agreed that some people pray in those ways, he told me how in his mind, at its best, prayer should be more about connection than getting things.
That we pray to express our love for each other.
That it’s about connection and even intimacy.
That it’s about solidarity.
That it’s a time when we look beyond our selves, beyond our own wants and desires, and join ourselves with those in need.
How sometimes it’s more effective to pray with someone—or at least to tell someone you’re praying for them—than to do so anonymously because it helps create that feeling of love and connection with each other.
And how God loves it when we love each other.

Praying Together, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57608. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/fteleaders/7455972304

Have you ever experienced prayer like that?
Having someone pray for you, with you?
Maybe you’ve been talking with a friend or a loved one, telling them about rough times in your life or your fears and they offer to pray for you?
They name what you said, show they’ve been listening, and somehow speak the words you need to hear?
I’ve seen what can happen in these moments.
I’ve seen the beauty and grace and love they bring.
And while I have certainly seen this happen in church buildings, this is one of the many essential works of the church that doesn’t require a specific building to happen.
I’ve seen this type of prayer happen in hospital rooms with people feeling afraid or grieving.
I’ve seen it happen in bars with people feeling isolated or rejected.
I’ve even seen it happen via social media with a friend who was dealing with a miscarriage.

And when it happens to me?
When someone sees my pain, my needs, my fears and names them?
When they pray with me, pray for me, it’s like they break through the scabs that cover my wounded soul, it’s like they tear down that protective wall I’d been so carefully building, and I am flooded with grace and compassion and love.
I feel the deep and intimate connection with this person and the God who is bringing us together and uniting us in divine love.
And sometimes that can make all the difference.
Sometimes that is enough.

In today’s gospel, we complete our third week of hearing what has been called Jesus’ farewell discourse.
This is the night we now call Maundy Thursday and Jesus is preparing his disciples for what it will be like when he leaves them, when the world changes forever.
And now, just before they leave to go to the garden, just before the betrayal, Jesus takes time to pray.
The very last thing he does before going to his betrayal and ultimate crucifixion is pray.
I’m sure that Jesus can sense the fears and anxieties his disciples had that night.
They didn’t know what was coming next or what the world would look like when it was over.
They were preparing for the unknown and I’m guessing they weren’t sure that they would be up for the task.
And Jesus sees them, he sees their fears, he sees their concerns, he sees they’re clinging for hope and need for guidance and he prays.
He prays for the world he so loves, for the church that will continue his ministry, for his friends and disciples, and for all of those who will follow after them.
And you know what that means?
Jesus is praying for you!

Jesus Praying, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56704. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/talesoftaromeet/6867087845 – DL Duncan

Let that sink in a moment.
The creator of the cosmos is holding the whole world in prayer.
Our great high priest is sustaining the whole church.
And God incarnate is praying for you.
And we get to hear Christ pray for us!
He’s praying for our protection, praying that we can experience the fullness of life he has come to bring, praying that we may be one.
Just as Christ and God are one. He’s praying that all people can experience intimate connection with each other, that we would be bound together in love—a love that erases divisions, crosses boarders, and unites us in common purpose, the purpose of Christ’s good news of God’s love that is for all people.
The gospel that motivates our lives and is our mission to spread through word, action, and, yes, prayer.

And if praying for someone is about connection with them, standing in solidarity, about putting someone else’s interests before our own, just think about what it means that Jesus is praying for you.
For us.
For the whole world.
And he’s praying in hopes that we will continue his mission, by reminding us what we have been called to do.

Now, we know that the world is changing around us.
We find ourselves in this strange in-between time and the only certainty seems to be that the post-COVID world will look so different than it did just a few months ago.
And we honestly can’t know exactly what it will look like to be faithful followers of Jesus in that new normal any more than those disciples could imagine what their ministries would look like once Jesus left them.
But we know that no matter what happens, we will be doing our best to follow Jesus’ example of love for the whole world.
And we do have some ideas of what that looks like right now.
It looks like advocating for our neighbors who have lost their jobs or whose documentation status excludes them from most of our social safety nets.
It looks like standing in solidarity with our frontline workers and first responders by demanding we take all the steps necessary for their protection.
It looks like wearing a mask—perhaps the perfect embodiment of prayer in these days, a purely selfless act especially remembering that my mask protects you and your mask protects me and it only works if we all protect each other.[2] Not to mention how easy it is.
And honestly, following Jesus’ example looks like keeping our church buildings closed right now and continuing our ministries from afar until we can all safely gather again.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – MAY 03: A mask and a heart are projected on the Christ the Redeemer as a tribute to medical workers amidst the coronavirus (COVID – 19) pandemic on May 3, 2020 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. According to the Ministry of health, as today, Brazil has 101,147 confirmed cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) and at least 7000 recorded fatalities. (Photo by Ide Gomes/Getty Images)

We’re in a time of waiting right now, my friends.
We’re huddled together in our homes like those first apostles, waiting for what the world, what the church, will look like when we go out again.
And while we wait in our homes, we pray.
We pray to center ourselves, to calm our fears, and to seek God’s guidance for what is next.
And as we wait, as we pray for each other, as we gather together in the Spirit’s loving bonds, we remember always that Jesus prayed for us that night with the confident assurance that he is praying for us still.
And maybe today, maybe this week, maybe throughout this strange in-between time, that can be enough.

[1] “The Science of Prayer,” Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Bernstein. May 17, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-science-of-prayer-11589720400

[2] “The Real Reason to Wear a Mask,” Atlantic, Zeynep Tufekci, Jeremy Howard, and Trisha Greenhalgh. April 22, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/04/dont-wear-mask-yourself/610336/

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