I invite you to join me in a word of prayer.
Almighty God, once again we have been granted the privilege to gather and assemble together. While we gather in this grand space, in our homes, our workplaces, and in our communities, we ask now that you would bless us, keep us, cover us. But most of all, fill us for all the places that you will send us. This we ask in your wonderful name. Amen.
This morning, I want to tell you one thing: there’s work to be done. As I reflect upon the prayer that I have just prayed, I’m not able to account for the number of times I have prayed that prayer in similar or even identical form. And every moment that I’ve stood to preach in recent months, I have asked that God would bless us, keep us, cover us. But most of all, fill us for all the places that He would send to us. I am not certain how closely or intently you may have been listening. Maybe you missed it because you dismissed it. There may have been some who characterized the prayer as the mere moment of expected formality proceeding the preaching occasion. We may not be in the same place, yet you were close enough to hear me praying. Through the use of technology and the amazing machinery, we find ourselves sharing this digital space. Those who have turned on and tuned in were both in earshot of the prayer and in position to eavesdrop on the prayer that was being lifted to God, but at the same time, being offered in order to join us closer to God. For some, you heard the words but missed the message. For others, the prayer was an opportunity to step more deeply into the moment. It was a recognition of our being present and the realization of God’s presence. The prayer was a petition, a spirit-filled push, a pull and even a press to open what has been mistakenly closed, or close what may not need to have been opened. Even with a few words, the prayer is a time of learning, listening, relating, and connecting ourselves with God, and even to those who are around us. It is a time when we struggle to find the right words. And a moment when we are challenged to grow, to transform, and even to love.
Time and time again, I have heard generations before me and have been in fellowship with others on this faith journey who, when thinking about prayer, have declared that there’s power in prayer. I have heard others join in their response by lifting that wonderful line that says prayer changes things. I have heard others who even reminded me, who said even when prayer doesn’t immediately change things, it will pray, change you in order that you may change things. In the most difficult of times, the darkest of circumstances, and struggling situations, I have been told that prayer is all you need. I did not always understand what was being communicated and the truth that was being shared, as words can every so often be insufficient natural tools to express limitless realities. As a boy who grew up sitting in prayer meeting after prayer meeting, taken there by parents, by loved ones. Being there on Wednesday nights, Saturday nights, other nights during the week. Here, time and time again, I would sit in the corner and listen to the elders of the day, or even those who were convicted by the experiences in the moments, witnessing those who were carrying their struggles and their burdens of life, raise up when they would sing prior to their praying on bended knee, “Sweet hour of prayer! Sweet hour of prayer! / That calls me from a world of care / And bids me at my Father’s throne / Make all my wants and wishes known / In seasons of distress and grief / My soul has often found relief / And oft escaped the tempter’s snare / By thy return, sweet hour of prayer!” I lift that this morning, not because I’ve heard those words, but I lift that because I believe those words.
When we think this morning, pastor, Christian leader, and missionary, as well as writer, Arthur Tappan Pierson stated when reflecting upon prayer, he said, “There has never been a spiritual awakening in any country or locality that did not begin in united prayer.” It was Mother Teresa that stated, “Prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of containing God’s gift of Himself.” Theologian, philosopher, and Bishop of Hippo, more familiar to many, known as St. Augustine, stated, “Pray as though everything depended upon God and work as though everything depended on you.” Author Austin O’Malley, noted author, here wrote, “Practical prayer is harder on the soles of your shoes than on the knees of your trousers.” An unknown author is credited with stating, “Do not make prayer a monologue, make it a conversation.”
I could go on, but the text lifted from the New Testament this morning comes out of a prayer and a conversation that Jesus was having with God. The disciples were close enough to hear the words and eavesdrop on the divine conversation that Jesus was having with the Father, as they were gathered in the Garden of Gethsemane. These words that were written, the passage that was read, and the reading that has been provided, are part of a larger discourse referred to as the Farewell Discourse or the Last Supper Discourse given by Jesus to his disciples. It began in the proceeding verses and chapters, around the table and moved out into the Garden of Gethsemane where we meet Jesus in prayer. We know this moment is filled with tension. It is filled with anxiety. It is even overcome by questioning, and the questioning of the disciples who were attempting to make sense of Jesus’s words. Jesus knows he will be arrested. He knows he will be beaten. He knows he would be ridiculed and crucified, but he knows he will be resurrected and will ascend to the Father. But throughout the evening, they listened as they heard all of his words. And I remind you, that he took them to a place that was not just a place of pretty flowers, though we refer to it as a garden. It is not the garden that we think about, where everything is in bloom. Or a garden where it’s just peaceful. But the Garden of Gethsemane was a place where planting, and harvesting, and producing took place. It was a workspace at that time, even in its translation of Gethsemane, it’s called here the Valley of Fatness or here, the Fertile Valley. And many of us know it, that it is translated as “the olive press” or “the oil press.” It was a place where they took raw materials and they turned it into something of value. He took them to the garden where they would be able to think about the work around them, so that maybe they might embrace the work that needed to be done within them.
But throughout the evening, they would hear Jesus tell them time and words, one after the other, “To love one another, as I have loved you. Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do. And even in fact, will do greater works than I have done.” They heard him say, “I will ask the Father and He will give you another Comforter.” They heard him say, “I am the true vine. And I have said these things to keep you from stumbling, but the hour has come.” And here in the gospel reading at the end of Jesus’s discourse, we find Jesus praying and the commentators, as well as preachers, over the years and throughout generations, have reflected upon this section of John. And have noted that throughout the years, the relationship of Jesus and his disciples to the world has often been complicated. The disciples were selected from the world, are recognized to be in the world. We are told that they are hated by the world, and yet they are not of the world. Jesus prays that his disciples be protected from the evil one who is working in the world. But pointedly, he asks the Father that they, the disciples, not be taken out of the world. It is in the closing words of this discourse that we can hear Jesus say, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes’, I sanctify myself so that they also may be sanctified in truth.” Jesus sends the disciples into the world to continue his mission. In a moment when there is anxiety. In a moment where there’s overwhelming wondering about the future. In a time that is similar to this time where there’s still classism, economic deprivation, Jesus’ prayer could have been focused on isolating them. But Jesus focused on sending them. Jesus prays that they would be set apart.
We’ve heard the word “sanctification” and I don’t have enough time to get into all that goes on and how we twist that to sometimes our own advantages and self-purposes. But I remind you, sanctification is simply being set apart for a purpose. A purpose that could only be achieved as they were sent. And we’ve got to be careful that we do not separate the sanctification from the sending. So that if someone declares the desire to be holy as God is holy, that there is a purpose in the holiness that can only be achieved that’s part of the sending. The ministry would call for them to connect with others, to engage with others, to welcome the stranger, to love their neighbor, to proclaim the good news to the poor, to continue the work as they would proclaim freedom for the prisoners, to recover sight to the blind, and to set the oppressed free. There was work to be done. But let me remind you, I’ve been told that this kind of work cannot be done by proxy. Ministry cannot be done by proxy. There are some responsibilities where proxy may work well, but it’s not discipleship. You can serve on a board and by proxy, cast your vote. You can hold an office and give someone the authority by proxy. You can vote on an issue, but you cannot maintain a fruitful relationship by proxy. Anyone who is married or in a deep relationship, you realize that a marriage and a relationship does not work well by proxy. There can be no substitute for personal service in this life and in the life of a believer. Jesus is sending them into the world, so that the world would have what it may be missing. He was sending them into the world in order that there would be light in a dark place, salt in unsavory places, power where there’s weakness, selflessness where there is selfishness, love where there is hate. The prayer and their experience was preparing them to receive the promise of the Spirit for a purpose.
God is calling us this morning to climb higher heights, to let down our necks, to cast out into the deep, to walk even on water. Now some of that may sound ridiculous to some of you, but faith in God will sometimes call us to embrace the ridiculous, in order that someone would be able to see the miraculous.
God has been stirring things up over this past year. As we look out around us, there is something that will happen when we stir each other. And when things get stirred up in order that we would not remain in the same place. And so, I remind you throughout the generations, preacher after preacher has reminded you the importance of how the eagle stirs her nest. That even in making the nest, the eagle makes that nest in the bottom of the nest, with thorns and sharp objects down at the bottom, and then covers them with here, all sorts of feathers and soft bedding, in order that when they’re young, the eaglets can rest on that soft material. But as they begin to grow, there’s a certain time that will come where the eagle starts to remove what is soft in order that they could not get comfortable. And those thorns start to pop up. Those sharp objects start to remove some comfortable places and sooner or later the eaglets even have to get uncomfortable so that they can say, “I need to move out of here.”
Well, I don’t know God, what you’ve been doing, but over this past year, we’ve been stirred in a way that we’ve been pushed out of our nest. And I’ve heard people talk about in a rush to get back to a comfortable place. But He’s given us the ability and stirred us, so that we would use the wings that we have been given through His prayer to climb to higher heights, to go where we’ve never gone before, to do what we need to do. And so, the nest has been stirred. And the question that we’ve got to ask today, as we hear Him send us, “Will we do the work that needs to be done?”
“Because somebody prayed for me / Had me on their mind / Took the time and prayed for me / I’m so glad he prayed / I’m so glad he prayed / I’m so glad he prayed / For me.”