Rev. Danielle K Bartz May 16, 2021
John 17:9-16 “Why Pray?”
I am a fan of the old television show “The West Wing.” There is a scene, sometime in one of the early seasons, when the white house staff is trying to convince congress to pass a foreign aid bill – essentially trying to convince them to budget money to assist in humanitarian work in other countries. The usual DC wheeling and dealing is done, and it all comes down to one senator who will vote for the bill if some additional money is set aside for a federal study about the power of prayer for those in the hospital. This senator makes his pitch by having an agnostic heart surgeon come to the white house to cite a study about the different health outcomes between those patients who are anonymously prayed for, and those who are not.
Of course, a federally funded study about prayer runs right into the separation of church and state, so the deal couldn’t be made. But, while discussing it, the president made a comment that goes something like: “I should be able to have a button on my desk that I can push and 1000 people automatically pray for me.” It was a comment made essentially in jest, but it is a line that has stuck with me. There have been a few times when I wished I could quickly push a button and would know that a bunch of people were going to stop what they were doing and say a quick prayer.
Though I guess the downside of that is we would never really know what they were praying for.
For some, prayer comes as naturally as breathing. For others, it feels forced or even fake. When I was a new hospital chaplain, I got myself wrapped up in knots of anxiety about what to say when someone I had just met lying in a hospital bed asked me to pray. I worried that if I somehow said the wrong words, not only would that mean I was a failure of a chaplain but could also cause the patient to get worse, not better.
Why do we pray? Are we trying to accomplish something? Are we trying to make the world a better place? Make ourselves better? Get God’s attention? Is prayer an act of faith? Obligation? Rote ritual? Why do we pray?
Believe it or not, this is a question I ask myself a lot. Like a lot of good liberals, I have been known to say – on more than a few occasions – the world needs a whole lot more than thoughts and prayers. And I believe that. There is a lot of injustice in our world that requires action. But, I also believe that our world needs prayer, and that prayer serves a vital purpose in the lives of the faithful.
The scripture we heard today is a prayer. Scholars often refer to this section of the Gospel of John as the ‘Priestly Prayer’ – and some go as far as to say that this prayer is just as important as the Lord’s Prayer. But in a different way. The Lord’s Prayer was taught to the people when someone asked Jesus what the right way to pray was, so Jesus taught them the words that called on God’s presence and protection, but also acknowledges that we cannot control God. The Lord’s Prayer is humble and simple – which is likely why Christians are still saying it nearly every time they gather.
But the Priestly Prayer that we read a portion of today is different. This isn’t a lesson Jesus was teaching, this was personal. Private even. It reads like someone was sitting just out of sight of Jesus and recorded this moment of earnest communication with God. There was no parable, lesson, directive, or explanation. Simply Jesus praying.
Why? Because there was nothing else left to do? The Priestly Prayer happens on what we have come to consider Maundy Thursday. Jesus has finished the Passover meal with his disciples. He has given them his final lessons. He knows about Judas’ betrayal. He knows he will be arrested and likely executed. There is nothing else left for him to do, so he prays. He opens his heart and spirit, and simultaneously draws on the strength of God while asking God to protect the people Jesus was serving. Listen again to these few verses: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.”
Jesus knows that he is leaving his followers behind and there are no more lessons to be taught. Jesus knows his followers will be persecuted and vilified for following him. Jesus knows that the path he has set them on will be a difficult one and that some will likely die in his name. All that is left is to ask God to protect them.
There is a deep intimacy to this prayer. It sounds like a prayer a parent says for a child who is suffering or lost. It sounds like a prayer said by a lover who knows the relationship is ending but the love will always exist. It sounds like a prayer said by a pastor, separated from her congregation by pandemic.
Sometimes prayer is all we can do. It is an act that reminds us of God’s presence. I don’t believe prayer is a way for us to get God’s attention or to change God’s mind. That makes God small. It is not about getting the words right. It is about people calling on the name of their Creator and by doing so remembering that God was there all along. Prayer doesn’t change God, but I think prayer can change us.
That is why we come together after moments of tragedy. That is why we offer words of thanks. That is why we pray for the sick and suffering. The prayer changes us, if only for a moment, and allows us to let go of whatever pretenses we are holding on to. It allows us to humble ourselves by remembering there is so much more to this existence than we can possibly understand and that we cannot control everything.
I don’t know what it would be like to be able to push a button and know that people were going to stop what they were doing a say a prayer for me, but I think it I would find it comforting. Wouldn’t you? Knowing that someone, somewhere, was opening their hearts to God and turning their minds to you? And it wouldn’t matter what they were praying for, because we can’t change God with prayer. But we can change ourselves and we can be changed by knowing we are being prayed for. And when our collective focus turns somewhere, when we pray for the sick, the scared, the hurt, or the grieved as a community – this it is like thousands of points of light reaching out into the night sky. One light cannot reveal the path ahead, but thousands can. It is a way for God to guide us along whatever path we are on.
So, my answer for why should we pray? Because we are changed by it and because it can create good and light in this world. Don’t worry about the words, if all you can come up with in the moment is the Lord’s Prayer – that is perfect. God doesn’t need the right words. God just needs you, and me, and all of us open to the presence of God in our lives. That is enough, especially when there is nothing else left to do. Amen.
just as you prayed for your disciples so long ago
Pray for us,
Pray for our wellbeing,
Pray for our protection.
Pray for your joy to be made complete in us.
Pray for our spiritual growth.
Pray for your truth to be made complete in us.
we often do not know how to pray,
So pray for us,
Pray with us,
That we may be one with you,
One with each other, and
One in ministry to the world.
Pray for your weak ones,
Your strong ones,
You ones who are have illnesses,
Your ones near death,
Your ones who breeze through life,
Your ones who struggle in life.
Pray for those who have lost loved ones,
Those who have especially loved ones in past wars.
Those who have lost ones in the present wars.
Those who fear theirs may die in these wars.
We join you in these prayers for all your people,