St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Edina, Minnesota
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
The Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 16, 2010
Loosen a little our grip, O Lord, on our words and our ways, our fears and our fretfulness, that finding ourselves found in you, we may venture from the safety of the shore and launch afresh into the waters of grace with Jesus, “the bright morning star,” as our guide. Amen.
The words we’ve just heard from the 17th chapter of the Gospel of John are the last words of a conversation between Jesus and God. Jesus has already broken bread and shared a cup of wine with his closest circle of friends. He has shocked them by wrapping a towel around his waist and washing their feet, acting like a lowly servant. He has given them a new commandment to love one another so that others will know – with certainty – that they are indeed his disciples. And now he prays for them. To the side of the room are the bowl with dirty water that dripped from the feet of his friends and the towel that he used to dry them. The small talk among those friends has finally trailed off. They are watching Jesus, listening to him. And we who have gathered here today because of their faith in Jesus are also listening to him. Here’s how the theologian Eugene Peterson describes this moment, which comes mere hours before the terrible events of Good Friday when Jesus died on the cross and was buried in the tomb:
Jesus is talking to the Father. Jesus is praying. He prays for a long time. This is holy ground. We find ourselves embraced in a holy listening. We are in a place of prayer, a praying presence. Our mouths are stopped. We are quiet. . . . We are not used to this. We are not used to being quiet. We talk a lot. We talk about Jesus and God. We talk to Jesus and God. We witness, we give counsel and advice, we preach and teach, we gossip and discuss, we sing and pray. But we are now in the room that is John Seventeen, in the prayerful presence of Jesus who is praying – praying, as we . . . soon find out, for us.
The notion of taking even a moment to stop and be quiet, to listen for the voice of God and watch for the movement of the Spirit in our midst is radical and counter-cultural, and it can seem at times downright un-American. We are a nation of doers, and we are busy with both the work that pays the mortgage and the work that we suppose builds the kingdom. It’s ironic that we’re often too tired from trying to do good on God’s behalf to hear about the greater good that God is always doing on our behalf. Learning how to pray without using up all the oxygen in the room through our own endless chatter is often disconcerting to people like us.
My favorite liturgies in the Moravian Church as I was growing up in North Carolina were celebrations of the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion – the same meal that we will soon share at this Table. I loved singing the German chorales, hearing the words of Jesus, and seeing the pastor vested in a beautiful white surplice. All of those things seemed to point to the fact that we were doing something important, which was true.
Those liturgies also included moments of silence. I must confess that it took years for me to appreciate that part of the experience. To make matters worse, the pastor during my pre-high school years was a deeply spiritual and prayerful man. Let me translate that last sentence: During Holy Communion, he made those moments of silence extra long. My mind would start wandering in place of the wondering that it should have been doing. 45 seconds: It feels like we’ve been stuck here for hours and hours. 2 minutes: Is the pastor OK over there; does he need medical attention? You get the point.
The church ought to be a place where we can practice the kind of profound listening that our faith demands, where we can sit beside the friends of Jesus and listen to him as he prays for us – for all of us –with all of our failings and imperfections and shortcomings. Just know that it’s not as easy as it seems and that silence can be deafening and unsettling. The 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal believed that most of our misery “derives from our inability to sit still in our rooms.” As one of my former professors of religion and literature at Wake Forest University once said:
To sit still is to wait, to watch, to listen, to hear a surprising and uncomfortable word, perhaps even the Word of the Lord himself. . . . Surely this fine line from Alice in Wonderland was meant for me and perhaps also for you: “Don’t just do something: stand there!”
Speaking of sitting in the company of Jesus’ friends as he prays for us, the Quakers, or Religious Society of Friends, spend a lot of time in this silent non-doing. It’s how they worship as a Christian community. They sit together quietly, listening for the movement of the Spirit. Sometimes a person rises to speak, and sometimes there’s an hour of silence. I dare say most of us would probably find that latter possibility to be torturous and painful. I dare say also that most of us could learn a great deal from the Quakers about what it means to sit in the presence of Jesus and pray together with his friends.
I’ve been thinking about the hurricane of activities – inside and outside the church – that so many of us experience as an endless storm in our lives. And I’ve been haunted by a story that preaching professor David Lose posted this past week on the website of Luther Seminary in St. Paul:
On a Monday morning in late August of last summer, Rollie Martinson, a colleague of mine . . . had just taken his seat on an airplane when he decided to introduce himself to the man seated beside him. After exchanging names, Rollie asked enthusiastically, “So, do you go to church?” “Funny you should mention that,” the man replied, “we were just talking about church yesterday.” He went on to explain that the previous year, he and his family had let themselves get totally over-extended. Between work, social commitments, and the activities of their two children – one in elementary school, one in junior high – they were exhausted by Christmas. They were determined that this year would be different. So after going to church as usual the day before, they held a “family council” over lunch to review all of their commitments in light of how each helped them be the kind of individuals and family they wanted to be. After an hour and a half of conversation, they made their decisions. And church was one of the things they had decided to stop doing. Girl Scouts remained, but church was out. “It’s just not that meaningful,” the man explained. “We go each week and finally realized we’re not getting anything out of it. It doesn’t connect with the rest of our lives, let alone help us lead those lives. So we’re done.”
David Lose believes this reality is the greatest challenge facing our generation of Christian leaders, and I think he’s right about that. It’s a challenge not only for me but for all of us as collective leaders of this community of faith. Responding to the need will require the kind of prayer that I’ve been talking about.
My hope is that together we can create the kind of community at St. Stephen’s where the family in that story would be able to connect their faith with their daily life, where they would be able to integrate their faith into their home and their neighborhood, their schools and places of work, even into their outreach to those in need. My hope is that we can create the kind of community at St. Stephen’s where the church itself doesn’t add to the problem by magnifying the hurricane of activities. This ought to be a shelter from the storm – holy ground – a place where we can stop for a moment in the prayerful presence of Jesus. It ought to be a place for discovering meaning and purpose in our lives, a meaning and purpose that comes from listening to Jesus.
I’d like the staff to pray about that. I’d like the members of the Vestry – our governing board – to pray about that. And I’d like you to pray about that. The good news is that Jesus is already praying for us . . . today.
So let’s just listen for a moment.
1 BACK TO POST Revelation 22:16, among the last words of the Bible, refers to Jesus as “the bright morning star.”
2 BACK TO POST John 17:20-26 is the conclusion of Jesus’ high priestly prayer, which includes all of John 17.
3 BACK TO POST Eugene Peterson, Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) 217.
4 BACK TO POST Ralph Wood, “Be Ye Hearers of the Word and Not Doers Only,” June 7, 1998.
5 BACK TO POST David Lose, “The High Priestly Prayer and the Challenge of a Lifetime,” May 9, 2010