The Mystery of Prayer

A sermon given on May 16, 2021 based upon John 17:9-15, entitled “The Mystery of Prayer.”

Our reading this morning comes from an extended prayer that Jesus made to God on behalf of his disciples.  Our reading portion in the middle of that prayer.  Listen for the word of the Lord.

I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.  All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.  And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
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.
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.
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.
I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.

Thus ends the reading, may God bless our hearing of the word.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus tends to speak in such “fancy”, exalted, sometimes convoluted language that it’s easy to miss the oh-so-very human thing that is taking place here.

Jesus is about to die, and he knows it.  For several chapters he’s been talking to his disciples – his beloved “friends” as we heard him affectionately call them in the section we heard last week — preparing them for life without his physical presence among them.

He’s struggling with some pretty raw human emotions.  He is leaving those he has dearly loved in this life, the flock he has watched over as the good shepherd – protecting them from harm.

He won’t be here to protect them, and so he concludes his time with them by praying for them – asking God to keep them safe — because there is nothing left to do but pray.

There’s something so deeply vulnerable about Jesus in this moment – the deep yearning of his love.  In particular I am struck by the little word Jesus uses as he turns to prayer – the word “ask.”  “I ask you to protect them from the evil one.”  There’s an acknowledgment as Jesus turns to prayer that just as is the case with any of us, he isn’t in control of what will happen in the future to his beloved friends.

It is to prayer that we turn to at such times – often even people who think of themselves as atheists – even people who doubt that prayer can do any good.

And so I am led this morning to reflect on this mystery that is prayer – this thing we do throughout our lives and particularly as we gather together on Sunday morning.

We pray to God.  There are a lot of reasons to pray, of course.  We pray to give thanks, we pray to make a connection to the source, to find our center.  But we also pray for help – we pray to ask for God to intervene in our lives, and the truth is our most fervent prayers arise out of such need, out of the deep longing of love, asking for things – for ourselves, yes, but also for those we love.

Why do we do this?  One simple reason is offered in our scripture lesson, and that is, because Jesus did so.

But prayer is… a mystery – one that raises all kinds of difficult questions such as:  Does it do any good?

I mentioned last week as I was reflecting on the words of Jesus in John’s Gospel and how they might connect to Mother’s Day a sixty year old long-forgotten memory of my mother came to mind and how it felt like the Holy Spirit was responsible for bringing the memory to consciousness.

There was actually another memory – this one nearly forty years old — that came to mind that week involving a mother that I thought about using in my sermon, but decided not to because it didn’t really relate to my theme I was addressing.  But I’m going to tell the story this week because it involves a story told to me about prayer, and I think the Holy Spirit had a hand in bringing this one to mind as well.

It’s a story that was told to me by a ninety-year-old man in one of the tiny country churches I served at the outset of my ministry.  His name was Jim Retino, a tough but tender Italian-American who had spent his life working with his muscles and callused hands. It was something of a wonder that a man like Jim would be found in a little country Methodist Church.

The story involved an experience Jim had had over seventy years earlier during his time when – right out of high school – he was serving in the Navy during World War I.  Jim was stationed at a Naval base somewhere on our coast, and one winter night he was finishing up a shift keeping watch doing patrol duty. Frozen to the bone, Jim was relieved to be finished his patrol around the long perimeter of the base.  Apparently, though his replacement had gotten sick so the officer in charge commanded Jim to go back and march the perimeter a second time. Jim was young, immature — with a temper and something of an attitude problem regarding authority figures, and so he blew a fuse, cursing the officer, refusing the order.  He headed back to the warmth of his bunk but instead landed Jim in the brig for a twenty-day sentence of solitary confinement with a diet of essentially bread and water.

One morning, ten days into his sentence, Jim was going quite literally crazy from the boredom and loneliness.  In the midst of his anguish, a memory popped up into his mind of his mother – another Holy Spirit induced memory. He remembered how every day back at home as his mother would go about her household chores, making beds and such, she would pause to kneel at the bed of each of her children in order to pray for them.  As a teenager, Jim had thought that it was a dumb thing for his mother to do, and that this God to whom she prayed was a “crock”.

But here now in his great anguish his thoughts turned to God – essentially, to the question, “God, are you real?”

And in his desperation, he put down a challenge before God.  “Listen, God if you are real, I want you to show me.  I want you to get me out of here by 12 noon today.  Not 12:30, not 12:01.  I want you to get me out of here by noon.  You do that and I will forever after worship you as real.”

It was an outlandish request, but Jim wasn’t kidding around and he thought of nothing else as the morning hours passed by.  Finally, in dramatic fashion just before the noon whistle for lunch blew, the guard on duty opened Jim’s cell.  “Retino, the commander sent down orders that you are to go get yourself lunch at the chow hall, and then to report directly to his office.”

Stunned, Jim made his way to the first decent meal he’d had in ten days, and afterwards proceeded to the commander’s office.  When he was ushered in, the Commander sat at his desk holding a letter in his hand.

“Your refusal to follow an officer’s command warranted twenty days in the brig,” said the commander.  “But I’m cutting your sentence short.  Do you have any idea why?”

“No, sir.”

“You remember back at Christmas when I gave you sailors a full week of leave so you could go be with your families?” the commander said, gesturing to the letter in his hand. “Well, the only letter of thanks I got came from your mother.  Sailor – you be sure to thank your mother.”

It’s a weird and wonderful story, and I believe that what Jim said happened really did happen, and that it explained why all those years later this tough old bird made his way to church every Sunday, and also explains perhaps the tenderness that characterized this tough old bird.

It’s a wonderful story, but for a couple of reason it can also be an infuriating story.

First, as a general rule, I don’t think God is in the habit of jumping through hoops people might demand God jump through to prove that God is real, which the story suggests is what God did.  God’s not a cosmic bell hop.

Although I believe Jim’s story is in some sense an example of “answered” prayer – I’m inclined to view it more as an answer to his mother’s prayer than that of Jim’s.

But what do I know?

The story is possibly infuriating on another level because it raises the sort of unanswerable question at the heart of the mystery that is prayer, and that is — why was this mother’s prayer for the safe-keeping of her child responded to in what appears to have been the affirmative, and so many other impassioned prayers seem to go unanswered?  The “thank you” letter doesn’t cut it for an explanation.

But seemingly miraculous things do happen from time to time when people pray.  Cancer patients given no chance of survival by their doctors make full recoveries.  The skeptic can argue it was just a coincidence – that some that there was some other explanation not yet understood – but it certainly doesn’t feel that way for those who prayed for the healing.

Nonetheless, so many prayers do seem to go unanswered – so many sick people who don’t get better – children left orphaned, or go who go hungry.  People whose lose their homes, marriages that dissolve.

Why does one prayer seem to get answered, and not another?

The primary thing to say in response is, “We don’t know.”

I can put forth a few things to ponder, but they aren’t explanations that ease the pain of every unanswered prayer.

Maidie has a dear friend she works with – a man with an elderly mother to whom he was greatly attached — a mother who was sick with a terminal illness.  Maidie witnessed to her distressed friend of her faith in Jesus and encouraged him that God loved his mother, loved him, to keep praying.  When his mother just got worse, it seemed from his perspective that if there was a God this God was sadistic.

Maidie encouraged her friend to think of his mother’s death as her ultimate healing – that as Jesus says elsewhere in John that in departing from his disciples into death he was going to prepare a place for them that they might come and be with him one day.  Maidie told her friend his mother would receive a new, pain-free body and that as an act of love he needed to let her go – give her his blessing to go to God.  That she could feel how tightly she was holding her to earth.  And in the end, that is what he did.

Prayer is an act of love – just as it was for Jesus – and the thing about love is that even as it is in one sense the most powerful force in the world, in another it is completely powerless, because love can’t compel, it can only invite.

We need to remember that our knowledge is terribly limited in regard to what it is somebody needs most – the deeper dimensions of what healing would mean for someone we love.

I heard a story about how in the middle of the night a pastor met a deeply upset woman in the halls of a hospital.  Her husband had suffered a heart attack and was in one room, and her adult son – having received the news of his father’s heart attack had suffered a serious car accident – and was a patient in another room.  They prayed together, and then the woman said something that stayed with the pastor for long afterwards.  “I’m not going to jump to any conclusions.  Who knows what God may yet bring out of all this?”

The truth is that sometimes the deepest blessings come out of horrifying experiences, but these blessings can’t be seen in the short term.  One is thrown back on trusting, just a Jesus trusted, regarding all that was out of his hands to control.

I say these things not by way of giving some kind of easy explanation regarding why prayers don’t bring an end to terrible suffering.

Prayer is indeed a mystery.

Anybody who tells you that your prayer wasn’t answered because you didn’t pray right, or you didn’t have enough faith is trying to convince themselves that prayer isn’t a mystery, and they should be told (politely perhaps) to shut their blasphemous mouths.

We pray without assurances that anything like the answer we want to receive will be received.  But pray we must, even though – just as it was for Jesus – to pray is to make ourselves vulnerable – to acknowledge we aren’t in control.   “Help,” we ask in desperation, reminding ourselves and one another that God is for us, not against us.  And also, that it’s okay to be angry with God when our prayers seem to go unanswered. At the core of prayer is a relationship with the one who gave us life and just like our relationship with our parents will include times in which anger arises and needs to be worked through, what matters is we hang in there with such relationships – that with God keep on asking, listening and asking, perhaps discovering what we ask for changes over time.

And pay attention enough to notice when prayers do in fact get something like an answer, and a loved one’s suffering is eased, and make sure to celebrate those moments.

I do not understand the mystery that is prayer, and I know that God already knows what we need before we ask, but I do believe that in asking – and asking from our very depths – somehow space is created for the Holy Spirit to move.