On Their Behalf

In honor of Memorial Day, I preached this sermon based in the Gospel Lection of John 17:6-19 yesterday at the First Congregational Church in Chappaqua, New York.

I am asking on their behalf. These are the first words of Jesus’ prayer at the end of a long speech in the Gospel of John just before the Passion narrative begins. I am asking on their behalf.

On their behalf, I gathered with a group of my fellow seminarians to pray. That night when the death toll of American troops in the war in Iraq reached 2,000, we prayed on their behalf. On their behalf, we lit candles and sat in silence. We told stories of friends and loved ones. And on their behalf, we sang. Though it was completely out of season, we sang out of tune into the night:

O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind
Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease
Fill all the world with heaven's peace
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

It’s a song for Advent. It’s a song that we sing into the bleak winter longing for the presence of God to break through our darkness. That night, we sang on their behalf not knowing how else to express the longing in our hearts. We sang for peace and comfort. We sang for God’s presence.

But, maybe it didn’t matter. You must have read that story in the New York Times a few months ago. If you didn’t happen to catch it, it basically debunked any power a group of praying seminarians might have – in one sentence. In the first sentence, the article read:

Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery, a large and long-awaited study has found.

I have not read this large and long-awaited study and in no way do I want to claim that religion trumps science every time. But, maybe despite these recent findings, you too need to feel the power of the prayer that Emmanuel shall come to you. Though this is a song for Advent, perhaps this is the deepest prayer on our hearts seven weeks after Easter. We have shared and rejoiced in the miracle of Easter. We’ve cleaned up the Palm Sunday parade and finally enjoyed the marshmallow Peeps that just reached the perfect staleness last week. We have heard the stories of Mary and Thomas, and even heard about Jesus’ appearance to the disciples hiding behind locked doors. But, seven weeks after Easter, we wonder when shall Jesus come to us?

For this, Jesus offers us words. After four chapters of this long speech, Jesus not only offers us more words, but talks about the concept of words. They have kept your word, he says. Jesus has given us these words that he has received from God. And so we have these words of truth. Words. Words. In the 338 words of this prayer, Jesus talks about words four times. Four times Jesus offers us words. Can’t you just hear Eliza Dolittle singing?

Words! Words! I'm so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?

Are we sick of words like Eliza? Or do these words have meaning to us? What does it mean that right here – right before the Easter narrative begins – that Jesus sits down and prays? Whether he prayed with his hands clasped close to hold God in or he reached to touch God in the heavens, Jesus utters words of prayer. Whether or not scientific studies question his purpose, Jesus prays.

I am asking on their behalf. It seems that Jesus should be praying for himself, instead of their behalf. Some might even argue that he does, and who can really blame him as he moves toward death?

But, perhaps that’s it. Perhaps this is the moment of clarity just before Jesus’ death. His life doesn’t flash before his eyes. But, it seems that suddenly everything has become very clear to him. Somehow in his approach to death, Jesus’ vision of what would happen to those closest to him becomes crystal clear. Without telling his friends these thoughts, Jesus prays.

I am asking on their behalf. Holy One, he prays. Protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. These are powerful words. Perhaps these are words that have great meaning to us. But, if I can be so bold, I want to complain about this prayer. I want to echo Eliza’s frustration and wonder why Jesus limited this prayer to words. I admit that my complaint may be the artist within me. But, as many times as I chided little Mary to “use her words” during her toddler years, I really wish that Jesus would realize that perhaps… perhaps… there are no words. Perhaps this prayer is just too big for words.

So that they may be one, as we are one. I wonder if we miss the connection buried in the 338 words of this prayer. I wonder if these words are more than we need. And yet, on their behalf, Jesus prays.

338 words. You have heard my complaint. And now, you can ignore it. Because even as I stand here complaining, you already know about the word. You know that “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” It doesn’t matter that the words of this prayer are more than we need. Because Jesus is already there.

Remember? In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. God is already present. God is already there. And because of this, in his last moments, Jesus the Word offers us the connection on our own behalf for what “we need to see.”

Perhaps it’s not what we expect. Jesus doesn’t give us the same word that Eliza agonized over learning. This word, the word that Jesus offers to us in prayer, is the “total utterance that has resulted in everything visible and invisible.” The total utterance of everything visible and invisible. This word is that we need to see.

This is the word that continues to live among us. It is this word that Jesus prayed for so long ago that still surprises us in unlikely places, as it did for Miles Goodwin. On his way home from serving in the Vietnam War, Miles explains, in his own words,

I sat, in uniform, in a window seat, chain-smoking and avoiding eye contact with my fellow passengers. No one was sitting in the seat next to me, which added to my isolation. A young girl, not more than 10 years old, suddenly appeared in the aisle. She smiled and, without a word, timidly handed me a magazine. I accepted her offering, her quiet "welcome home." All I could say was, "Thank you." I do not know where she sat down or who she was with because right after accepting the magazine from her, I turned to the window and wept. Her small gesture of compassion was the first I had experienced in a long time.

In this connection, Miles found what he needed to see. It’s not a grand vision. Perhaps it’s not what you might expect. But it was something that Miles needed very much after coming home from war. Miles may never describe this moment as an experience of the Word of God.

But, then again, neither would a group of scientists who concluded that prayer is ineffective for heart surgery patients. Perhaps these scientists failed to discover the power of prayer because they did not need to see. Certainly, they were capable of seeing. But perhaps if they had opened their hearts to a simple “Welcome Home,” these scientists might be able to claim with Miles,

I believe in the connection between strangers when they reach out to one another.

Maybe if we are open to the moment and realize the powerful connection between strangers, between each of us, without seeking particular results or data, we will discover what we need to see. We will discover Jesus praying on our behalf.

And we can finally sing, even when it is entirely out of season,

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

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