Rev. Martha Jacobs
A Community for the Faithful
Psalm 1, John 17:6-19
Sunday, May 13, 2018
In my sermon two weeks ago, when I was talking about my conversion experience, I talked briefly about one of the new concepts I learned about as I worshipped at Immanuel Baptist Church in Wilmington, Delaware. And that concept was the way we prayed. The idea of praying to God and to Jesus for things that I needed or was having a hard time with, was new to me. And praying directly to God and Jesus for others, sometimes for people I knew in the congregation and sometimes for strangers, was a scary idea. But, eventually that became a rewarding experience. You see, it taught me about the interconnectedness of all of us and how intertwined our lives really are. And, just how important it is to pray for others as well as for myself.
That continues to this day. Our interconnectedness is reinforced every time we pray together and when I pray each day for all of you. When I ask members of our congregation to keep someone in prayer, you do. Prayer is a powerful way for us to interconnect with Jesus and also with each other. As I wrote in my Carillon message, it is humbling to stand before you and pray with you each week. It is also a great blessing.
Jesus’ prayer in our reading this morning, is known as the “high priestly prayer,” because, in it, he stresses his own close relationship with and resemblance to God, to whom he prays: “all mine are yours and yours are mine” and “we are one.” For me, Jesus bridges the gap from a God who is “out there”, as I talked about two weeks ago, to a God who is “in here.” That remote God was not one to which I could relate.
However, when I look at how Jesus relates to God, it gives me a roadmap, a guide for my own relationship with God, especially when praying. Jesus taught me that taking the time to name the joys, hopes and fears of someone I care about and may know, and bring all of that into the presence of God through my prayers, is an act of love. It expresses my concern, my care and my love for those for whom I am praying. And, it expresses my trust in God that those for whom I am praying are as important to God as they are to me.
When Jesus talks to the disciples in this reading, it is just before he is arrested. So, Jesus, knowing that he is about to be betrayed by one of his disciples, denied by another 3 times and deserted by all but the women, still prays for them! That is unconditional love!
Jesus knows that the disciples’ world is about to be turned upside down. Their small community of the faithful is about to be tested and challenged in a way that they could not even have imagined, despite Jesus trying to tell them what was going to happen to him. They just could not hear it nor comprehend it. And so, he prays for them.
This prayer that Jesus offers is so different from the one he utters in Gethsemane when he is anguished and fearful of what is about to happen to him. This is a trusting prayer, one where there is true intimacy between Jesus and God. Perhaps Jesus, in praying out loud the way he did, was trying to show the disciples how to keep a connection with God and with him, especially because he was not going to be physically present with them much longer.
Jesus is reminding them that they were One – not only were Jesus and God One, but the disciples were One, which means that we too are One with God and Jesus. We are a community for the faithful because we are willing to be One with each other and with God. We are willing to share each other’s burdens and joys. We are willing to name our concerns and needs aloud in this community of faith. In its own way, that shows our trust in and faithfulness to God and to each other.
One of the more trying times for me, when my faith was tested and my prayer life grew and was an anchor, was the span of more than a year following the conversation I had with my parents about my conversion. I knew that my mother was going to react in a way that was very different from my father because my mother and I had a relationship that had spanned years of being close and being at odds with each other, but we always found a way to remain connected. On the other hand, my dad and I didn’t form that kind of bond until my mother became ill.
After my conversation with my parents about my conversion, my mother worked to keep a connection between us. She pushed back against my dad, who at the time, wanted nothing to do with me. As is the custom in the Judaic tradition, my dad felt he needed to sever all ties and mourn me as if I were dead. It was a painful time for all of us, but I drew closer to my mother during this time. And, I also drew closer to God. I had to trust that things would settle down and that the bonds of love would hold as we traversed several years of a very rocky and rough terrain.
Looking back, I can see that my mother had a reason for ensuring that my dad and I maintained a connection, a loving connection. While she may not have consciously realized that she was going to die first, she knew that, similar to her own path, and her mothers’ path, I too would be the one to shepherd both of my parents through their final years, overseeing their care, their financial stability and what was important to them as their health issues began to impact their lives. My mother knew that I would do everything in my power to ensure that both she and my dad were able to both live and die with dignity. As I have talked about this from this pulpit in the past, my connection with God and with Jesus are what helped me get through those really difficult times when my parents were ill and dying. Further, after their deaths, Jesus walked with me through the hard and difficult journey of grief.
It was during those two grief journeys that my prayer life changed. There were times when words escaped me; all I could do was weep. But, even weeping is its own prayer. As I have said here before, praying does not need a “dear God” and “Amen”. A prayer can be a conversation; sitting with someone holding their hand; singing, journaling, walking a labyrinth, or even consciously choosing to treat someone with dignity and respect. It is also a chance to share our deep-seated concerns, worries, and fears and to ask for help. Prayer is a chance to remind ourselves of blessings and giving thanks.
Prayer is a time when you can be really honest with God and with yourself about how you are feeling and what your needs are.
I have been working with a new spiritual director for about 5 months. At the end of our sessions, Leslie prays for me and she prays for you. I have never been prayed for in the way that she prays – and I love it! It is so personal and so intimate and so human. And, it is never the same. The way she starts and ends her prayers are always different. Of course, the content is also different based on what we discussed. But, Leslie always makes me feel cared for. I know that God has been present during our time together. But, somehow, through hearing her phrase what we have been talking about in a new way, it deeply touches me and grounds me in God.
Psalm 1, which was our psalm for today, has particular meaning for me. Prior to my ordination, my mentor, The Rev. Sally Norris, reminded me that in Psalm1, “God’s law” to which the psalmist refers, is the Torah. The psalmist is reminding the people that the Torah is their touchstone – their grounding. Sally was reminding me of my grounding, which was also the Torah. As an ordination gift, she gave me a beautiful framed drawing of a tree by a stream, and around it is the quote: “She will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water.” An ongoing reminder to me of my grounding and my call to serve God and you.
Each of us carries with us God’s law, the law to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are fed by God and by each other through the love that we share. One of the ways that we continue that interconnectedness that started with God, went through Abraham and Sarah, down through Moses and the Israelites, through the prophets, through Jesus and the disciples and continues through us, is that love. The seeds that we plant through our love for each other, grow into stronger connections when we come together as a faith community and when we pray for and with each other. Those roots don’t always show, but they are there, underground, being nourished by our supporting each other. And our trees flourish and bear much fruit which we then share with the wider community.
Not unlike the disciples who were going through change, loss and uncertainty, there is something about knowing that others have travailed the difficult and sometimes painful paths we now walk. They may not have had the exact same issues, but they too struggled with living in a world where there are powers and principalities that negatively impacted their lives, sometimes turning it on its end. When he wrote this Gospel, John’s community was facing strong opposition from the world around them. They were a small community. They had lost their synagogue – their spiritual home – and were now having to face a future of uncertainty. The disciples were living in a time where they had to deal with uncertainty and change. We too live in that same liminal time, as we grapple with uncertainty and the ups and downs of life and living in this world.
When you are going through change, loss, uncertainty, I hope that you know deep within you, that you are part of a community that loves you and prays for you. And, you have a God that loves you and watches over you in good times and in bad. And, you have Jesus – we have Jesus who prays for us and walks with us through whatever is going on for us, giving us the courage to speak truth, combat hatred and love all of God’s creation. Through prayer, we can be faithful to God and to each other in ways that neither words nor actions can match.