by Rev. Dr. Helen Svoboda-Barber
Every year on the Sunday before Pentecost, we read a section of the longest prayer attributed to Jesus. The entire 17th chapter of the gospel of John is the prayer Jesus prayed just before he was arrested. The whole prayer has three fairly distinct sections. In the first section, Jesus prays for himself.
Jesus prays for himself first. WOW. How often do we pray for ourselves first when we pray? Jesus did. Perhaps we should also.
In this middle section, which we read today, Jesus prays for his disciples: those who have been with him from the beginning, and those who will be responsible for continuing to spread the Good News after he is gone. And the third section, the one we’ll hear next year, is where Jesus prays for us. Yup. Right there in the Bible, Jesus prays for you and me. He prays for those who will come to believe after he is gone.
Jesus prays for himself; he prays for his leadership team; and he prays for those who don’t yet exist. That is a powerful model for prayer: Pray for yourself; pray for the leadership of the church; pray for those who are not yet a part of the church.
St. Luke’s, like a good many churches after this past year, is a bit like the vision in Ezekiel 37. We may feel like a vast expanse of dry bones, wondering, “Can these bones live?” We may wonder who are we, since we haven’t been able to gather in large groups for over a year. We may wonder how we can continue to be God’s hands and feet in the world when breathing one another’s air could lead to dire consequences? We may also wonder in what ways have we been able to grow deeper in our relationship with Christ this past year, alone in our homes?
Some of us may feel like dry bones because we are exhausted from managing work from home and school from home and mental health stresses and never getting a break. We are languishing with all the liveliness of dry bones in the desert. Others of us may be so anxious just to get back to doing things and being with others and getting on with life. We may be frustrated about how long and slow and deliberate the church is moving. It may feel like the church is no longer enfleshed. Nothing but a bit of dry bone.
But when we step back a moment and take a breath, we can remember that God is bigger than me and my own life. God is bigger than St. Luke’s. God is bigger than the pandemic. And God, in ways that we don’t understand, is holding all of us in the midst of all of this. Breathe in that truth.
Jesus may have had similar thoughts to ours the night he spoke this prayer.
He knew his own painful death was coming soon. He was likely exhausted from trying to make sure the disciples understood all the important things before he died. He was likely anxious and scared about the pain of death and loss. He was likely unsure if the disciples had what it takes to keep this movement alive. At that moment, Jesus may well have been unsure if the church would live.
And holding that exhaustion and fear and doubt, Jesus prayed this three part prayer:
He prayed for himself…He prayed for his leadership…He prayed for those who were not yet there.
Strengthened by those prayers, the movement did not die.
Strengthened by those prayers, the church continued through thousands of years.
Strengthened by those prayers, you and I found our way to St. Luke’s in Durham, North Carolina, to this particular leaf on the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement.
In my prayers, Jesus and I have been talking a lot in the last few months about this point in St. Luke’s life. St. Luke’s as a congregation is at a fork in the road. We have a choice, and that choice is ours to make: Will we keep going like we have been in the past, or are we ready to more fully invest ourselves in God’s plan for this world, are we ready to take our faith seriously and have it infect every decision we make, are we ready to live out day by day and moment by moment the truth of God’s love for you and for me and for this world?
Are we ready to change our own lives, are we ready to change St. Luke’s, so that we become more and more God’s dream for us? So that we set down everything that does not point towards God, and we become all in for God’s work in our lives, in our community, and in the world around us?
It’s an open question. And we answer it in small ways every single time we make a decision: Does this draw me closer to God, or further away? Does this draw others closer to knowing they are God’s Beloved children or does it devalue others? Does this help me live out God’s love in the world, or does it not? We are practicing Christians. We practice following Jesus day in and day out, in big ways and small.
This pandemic has given St. Luke’s and all congregations a reset. In the coming months and years, we get to rebuild the church. Five years from now, St. Luke’s will be a very different place.
IF it is our desire for St. Luke’s to be a thriving, vibrant hub of God’s love for the city of Durham and beyond, we can work and pray and give to bring life to God’s plan for this place.
And in today’s gospel, Jesus gives us a model for our prayer: Pray for yourself. Pray for me and the vestry and the leadership of St. Luke’s. And pray for those who are not yet here.
As we respond in the Prayers of the People, dear God, “hear us, and change us.”