During the summer following my first year at Virginia Theological Seminary, I, like many of my seminary colleagues, was enrolled in a program of Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE. CPE is a chaplaincy internship, where seminarians and others are offered the opportunity to minister to hospital patients of all kinds while sharing in a cohort group that takes the time to reflect on those interactions under the guidance of a skilled chaplain supervisor. It is, as you might imagine, a particularly intense and formative experience.
I did my CPE at Mary Washington Hospital in the heart of Fredericksburg, Virginia. At the time, Mary Washington was the only hospital for miles around and served not only the town of Fredericksburg but also a large part of rural Stafford County. I was one of two Episcopalians in my cohort group, and so I dutifully arrived for my first day of CPE armed with a miniature version of the Book of Common Prayer. Because if I were going to be praying with those who were sick or dying or in distress, I needed to have a prayer book with me, right?
The problem with this theory was that the majority of the patients I ended up serving were not the local Episcopalians from St. George’s Church in downtown Fredericksburg, they were county folk, rural folk, and they were overwhelmingly Baptist. They were Baptists of every flavor and persuasion – Southern Baptist, Missionary Baptist, Freewill and Primitive Baptists, Baptists who didn’t even know what denomination they were but still knew that they were Baptists. And those Baptists wanted something else from me than an ancient collect read from a tiny green prayer book. They wanted me to pray from the heart, in the moment. Those Baptists wanted me to pray.
And so I did, nervously at first, because I had never really prayed like this before. There were lots of stumbling sentences and circular phrases, many, many agonizingly-long pauses, and even a few justs thrown in there for good measure. You know, Lord, we just, pray that you will, just, look down upon your servant and just…. There were also lots of surprises when I tried praying like this – like when in the middle of my prayer the patient started interjecting amens and mm-hmms and an occasional oh, yes, Lord. Or when I said, Let us pray, and the circle of family reached out and grabbed my hands. Or when I finished my prayer, rather pleased with myself, and the patriarch of the family, obviously feeling that there was more to be said, took over and kept right on praying, beautifully. And yet, in the midst of all of my awkward starts and their startling surprises, I soon realized that the most wonderful thing was happening – something that is at the heart of CPE, the heart of ministry, really. Those patients, lying in their hospital beds, or their families, standing around a bed with tear-streaked faces, were helping me to pray. Their faith and their open-heartedness, their trust in me as someone who was trying so hard to be faithful and open-hearted myself, their love helped me to pray. It was a gift for which I will always be grateful, even if I still do prefer my ancient collects read from a tiny green prayerbook.
The Gospels are full of examples of the prayers of Jesus. And he did, I’m happy to say, seem to enjoy established, somewhat conventional prayers. He taught his disciples to pray the Our Father, a prayer that is steeped in the traditions of Jewish custom and liturgical language. But the Our Father is far from the whole story. Our Lord prayed in all different kinds of ways. Sometimes he pulled himself away to pray to his Father in quiet solitude. Sometimes he began his prayers with Thanksgiving, offering gratitude to his Father for the way he worked in the world, saying thank you for the raising of Lazarus before it had even happened. Sometimes his prayers were conversational, sometimes formal; sometimes they were as full of faith as a house built upon the rock and sometimes they were a little sandy and shaky, and once, a cry of dereliction and despair.
The prayer we hear today is the great prayer of Jesus in the Gospels. It is part of what is known as the High Priestly Prayer, a formal, public prayer with its roots grounded firmly in the farewell discourses of ancient patriarchs, such as Moses’ final prayer for the Israelites as they stood looking out over the Promised Land. The High Priestly Prayer is long and complex, as much a homily as it is a prayer. It is elegant and intricate, both rhetorically and theologically, a prayer with sentences and ideas that stretch and grow and wind themselves around each other like blossoming vines. It is a prayer with a certain weight and gravitas, not only because of its structure and formality but also because of when and where it was prayed – on the night before Jesus was crucified, in the upper room, when the night was dark and the journey to the cross had already begun. It is the prayer that Jesus prayed with his disciples as he was saying goodbye.
Remarkable, isn’t it, that in this moment when Jesus was asking that God’s purposes be worked out, that this “full, final sacrifice”* be made and the time of his crucifixion and glorification might come, he took the time to pray for his disciples. We might imagine that the prayer should have gone the other way – that Jesus would have told his disciples that this was the night that he was to be offered up and that they would have joined hands in a circle and prayed for him. But no, Jesus tells his disciples that now is the moment that he will hand himself over to suffering and death and then prays to his Father for them. He prays that they would know that they already have everything that they need, that everything has already been revealed to them. He prays that God will protect them with as much intimacy, with as much ferocity, as he has. He prays that they will know as much fullness of joy that he has known as someone who is at one with his Father and his Father’s purposes. And he prays that they will be wholly sanctified, set aside for a holy purpose, marked as servants of the world without being servants to the world. He prays that as his disciples – his friends – face the trials of the coming days that they will always remember who they are and whose they are. He prays for them powerfully and poetically, perfectly.
And the most wonderful thing of all is that he is praying still. Our Lord, Jesus Christ, crucified, dead, and buried, glorified, risen, and ascended, is still praying, for us. He is our only mediator and advocate, standing before the throne and speaking prayers for us that resonate deep within the very heart of God. He and his Father are one, in unity with the Holy Spirit, and his prayers for us, his disciples and friends, carry us into that unity through his very being. He prays for us, perhaps sometimes quietly, sometimes with shouts of thanksgiving, sometimes with serious resolve, sometimes playfully, sometimes lyrically, musically, laughingly. He prays for us because we are his very own, because he loves us and he knows how desperately we need his prayers. And so those prayers never cease.
So when we stand at the threshold of promise, he prays for us. When we stand on the brink of ruin, he prays for us. When we are gathered together with friends in joy and celebration, he prays for us. When we are gathered together with friends in sorrow and despair, he prays for us. Whether we are blissful or bleeding, confident or confused, he prays for us, prays that we will know that we already have everything we need – his truth, his love, his body and blood. He prays when we are praying, when we forget to pray, when we would never think to pray, when we don’t want to pray. He prays that we will always be protected and guarded, that we will feel ourselves kept and kept safe. He prays that we will know the deepest joy, the joy that only he can offer. And he prays that we will know ourselves to be sanctified by God’s grace and love, set apart, marked as his own forever.
Jesus prays for us, prays for you, now, even as you sit here on Locust Street, listening or not, prayerful or not, believing me or not. Jesus is praying for you, that you might see more deeply who you are and whose you are. You are held, this very moment, your thoughts, your fears, your loneliness – your illness, your anger, your despair – your faith, your joy, your gratitude, are all held in Christ’s prayers and wrapped up within the very heart of God. And his prayers lead to only to one thing – to resurrection, to new life, to joy that comes in the morning. So sometime, this morning, perhaps, be still and open. Lean in and listen. And you will hear him pray, from the heart and in the moment. Sometimes it will sound like the sermon you most need to hear. Sometimes it will sound like the song you are longing to sing. And sometimes, it might even sound like the prayer book.
*borrowed from a poem of Richard Crashaw
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
17 May 2015
Saint Mark's, Philadelphia