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Sunday, May 8, 2016

An Overheard Prayer

Jesus draws us into the life of God and into the life of community. United in a common witness to God, we ourselves become witnesses for one another.

Vicar Anna Helgen
   The Seventh Sunday of Easter, year C
   texts: Acts 16:16-34; John 17:20-26

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you and peace, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Have you ever overheard a conversation between two people and caught an interesting glimpse into their relationship and life together? Perhaps a couple arguing at the grocery store. Or maybe while at the pharmacy you notice a woman helping her elderly mother with a prescription. Or two kids playing make-believe in the neighborhood. We can learn a lot about a relationship simply by observing how two people interact with one another. 

It’s sort of like hearing someone pray for us. When someone prays for us it can feel like we’re overhearing a prayer. Because while we’re included in the prayer, we’re not the speaker. We’re not in control, and it can feel vulnerable and scary. We don’t know what this person might say about us on our behalf. And we don’t know how God will respond. 

On the other hand, being prayed for is a wonderfully humbling experience. We catch a glimpse of what someone’s relationship with God is like and by hearing their prayer, we are invited into that relationship, too. It’s a relationship that is not our own, and it might feel foreign to us to enter that space. But through prayer, we are welcomed into a holy and intimate relationship as we experience the interconnectedness of our beings with one another and with God.  

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus has already shared a meal with his disciples and washed their feet. He’s given them a new commandment to love one another just as he loves them. And now, before his betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion, Jesus takes a moment to pray. He first prays for himself, then for his disciples, and finally for those who will come to believe based on the words of the disciples. He prays for people like you and me! For our grandparents. For the future generation. For those who still do not believe.

Mary Hinkle Shore, one of my professors at Luther Seminary, writes, “We overhear a prayer on our behalf and are not called to action in that moment as much as wonder that the Father and the Son spend their time discussing the likes of us and our little community of faith.” This prayer is not a call to action. It is an invitation to wonder. A welcoming of discovery. And it’s a prayer for us today.

The other night, my husband Kurt was telling me how frustrated he is with the configuration of workstations at his new office. He said something like, and I quote: “The dual monitor arms aren’t designed such that they provide independent side-to-side, back-and-forth, and up-and-down adjustment. There’s only a single articulated arm per monitor, so when I’ve raised them to the right height there’s a six-inch gap between them.” I gave him one of these looks like...really? I was confused. It all sounded like a math proof to me. He rephrased what he’d said after he saw the look on my face, but then I realized something: Kurt is an engineer. This is how he talks. It’s the language he knows and understands. It’s his truth. 

Jesus sounds awfully confusing in this prayer—almost like he is speaking another language. But Jesus, too, speaks from a place of deep knowledge, understanding, and truth. Jesus reflects on his very life— life that is lived in community with the Trinity—and prays that this life, this unity that Jesus shares with the Father and the Spirit, might be for us, too. 

So what does it mean as a community to become one with God and each other? How do we experience unity? 

It means first that we come to know God ourselves and that starts with this prayer. Jesus makes no assumption that we know God. But he prays both for those who know him now, like the disciples, and for those who will come to know him and believe in him through their testimony. So knowing God begins in a community of faith. 

We come to know God through the witness of the disciples, through people like Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and Peter—those first witnesses of the resurrection. Their witness continues in the stories of the apostles, like Paul and Silas, who pray and sing hymns in jail while the other prisoners listen in. The stories in Scripture teach us how the disciples and apostles come to know God.

We come to know God through the witness of everyday saints. People like your neighbor who has taken up gardening after her husband died and now shares her rhubarb and peonies with you. Or the school crossing guard who protects your children as they’re on their way to school. Or maybe your friend who is not afraid to be candid, even though the truth might sting. The saints help us to know God in our ordinary lives.

And we come to know God through our own witness here in this place. All the elements of our liturgy give witness to the God we know through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They point to a God who is with us…
In the singing of hymns and the silence of prayer. 
In the sprinkling of water and the aroma of incense. 
In our confession of faith and our abounding doubt.
In the bread and the wine. 
In our gathering together as community.
Worship helps us to know God more deeply.

Once we come to know God ourselves—and recognize that knowing God is an ongoing relationship, or a process of becoming—we make God known for others. We draw others into the life of God, into the life of community, and we ourselves become witnesses. 

Like Mary, we tell our friends, “I have seen the Lord.”
Like Lydia, we invite others into our homes for fellowship.
Like the jailer, we wash one another and provide healing.

With those who have gone before us and those who will come after us, we unite ourselves in a common witness to God so "that [we] may become completely one.” 

United in a shared witness, we grow into community with one another. 
We grow in our ability to stand together despite that which could divide us. 
We deepen our love for God and our love for neighbor. 

As we hear this pray today, we participate in God’s life and in the lives of one another, so I invite you to listen again. To wonder, to discover, to become of one heart and mind with God and with the world, and to dwell within the mysterious and perfect unity of God’s own being. 

Jesus says, 
"I ask not only on behalf of these, 
but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 
that they may all be one. 
As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, 
so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 
The glory that you have given me I have given them, 
so that they may be one, as we are one, 
I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, 
so that the world may know that you have sent me 
and have loved them even as you have loved me. 
Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me 
because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 
Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; 
and these know that you have sent me. 
I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, 
so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them."

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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