Have you ever had the experience of someone praying for you? I’m not referring to the kind of prayer that’s a subtle way of judging you. That kind of ‘prayer as attack’ was described by William Sloane Coffin, famed preacher at Riverside Church in New York City. Coffin fought in the army during World War II, so that when he returned to college at Yale afterwards he was older than many students on campus.
His younger roommate was one of those Christians out to convert others, come hell or high water. He kept inviting Coffin to come with him to Battell Chapel on Sunday mornings; and Coffin, who was often out rather late on a Saturday night, kept steadfastly refusing.
Finally, one Sunday morning when the roommate once again asked him to come to services, and Coffin once again refused, the young man spat out, “Well, Bill, I will put you on my prayer list.” To which Coffin replied, “And in what way is your prayer list different from your hit list?” (The words he used were not ‘hit list’, but that’s as close as I can come in church, where kids are present.)
So when I ask if anyone’s ever prayed for you, that’s not the sort of thing I’m talking about; nor am I talking about the kind of things that people sometimes say as a way of generically wishing you well. I mean the deep prayer that sustains you through hard times and frightening events.
When Marianne was our Rector, I went through an episode of medical care. The X-Rays ordered to verify that I indeed had appendicitis also showed a something-or-other in my pancreas, which required further testing after the appendectomy. Since I’m not an alcoholic, that ruled out the most common kind of cyst, and left us with really nasty possibilities like the death sentence of pancreatic cancer. Needless to say, I was freaked.
A specialized test had to be done at Hennepin County Hospital, and the day when it was scheduled was not one on which Ivy could drive me there. So Marianne volunteered to take me to the clinic. While we were waiting for the staff to start IVs and do other preparations, she took my hand and prayed for me – for my comfort and well-being, as well as for courage to face whatever might be next. Obviously the tests came out fine, to my great relief. But I will never forget the experience of having someone hold me before God in a true prayer.
So I ask you again whether you’ve ever had someone pray for you. Such prayer is what Jesus was doing for the disciples in this morning’s Gospel reading. The twelve were anxious, confused and not at all clear about what the future held. The events in Jerusalem had felt threatening, like the vague unease we get when bad weather is coming and the sky turns that peculiar shade of yellow/green that can mean a possible tornado.
It seemed to the disciples as though some kind of storm could tear through and break them apart. In the face of their deep apprehension, Jesus prayed to his beloved Abba, specifically for them – for their unity.
He was not praying that they would all agree with each other all the time, or that there would be no squabbles or dissension. Rather he was naming them as community to one another and to him and to God. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us… The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one…”
This is not unity based on believing specific dogma, or pledging allegiance to some organization. This is a unity about who they are at the deepest core of their being, defined by the connection to God the Trinity.
More than that, this prayer is not just for those gathered at that Last Supper. Jesus said, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” That’s the prayer for us gathered here, and all who have heard through two thousand years.
Now you know the answer to the question with which I started: – yes, you have been prayed for – you in particular, known to God individually and as the flock called by Jesus. You have been prayed for before you ever knew it was so, because it does not depend on our knowing or understanding, but on God’s creative, loving goodness. We have been prayed into being as community.
Now many of you have heard me say that this community of St. Johns is the healthiest church of which I have ever been a part. And that’s true. But when I think back on the some of the wackier congregations I have known, I suspect that I have not been thinking of them deeply enough.
There was the upscale Methodist church in Baltimore where they tried to recruit my dad be an usher. He ultimately had to decline the honor because he did not have (nor could he afford to buy) a gray suit, the dress-code for the position.
I think of the tiny little church I served in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where I had the experience of trying to sing the hymn, ‘O Sacred Head Now Wounded’ played by our teenage organist in a major key. (Try it sometime. It’s not easy!)
I think of the slightly larger Methodist church in Harrisburg where Marion, who was a pillar of the United Methodist Women, told me early on that she just knew the two of us were going to get along famously, because she could see my wonderfulness just by looking into my eyes. (That lasted until I let the Youth Group meet in the UMW parlor and punch was spilled.)
But in spite of the ways I have remembered, and sometimes chuckled over, all those other churches, when I think of them again today, I realize that it is God who called all of them into being, with all their quirks and foibles. They are one with God, and I am one with them, even on the days when I find it easy to judge their shortcomings (as they undoubtedly sometimes judged mine).
Some two thousand years after Jesus prayed for his disciples and for all of us, we are made one with God and with each other, not because we are all alike, or because we work really hard at being Church, but because the depth of the Trinity created us, and calls us inside the loving union of Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. The prayer Jesus offered so long ago echoes today, that we all may be one in love and glory.