When I started doing pulpit supply here at Washington City back around 2002 or 2003 I used to listen to WAMU on the way in and on the way out. Back then on the way in it was Stained Glass Bluegrass, an excellent show full of bluegrass gospel music. On the way home, I listened to Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, a show that among other things often features bluegrass and old-time country music.
On Mother’s Day both shows would obviously feature songs about mothers. I looked up the Stained Glass Bluegrass playlist for Mother’s Day. Some of the songs were “My Mother’s Prayers,” “I Heard My Momma Weeping.” “Mother Prays Loud in her Sleep,” We’d Always Ask Mama to Pray,” “Beautiful Altar of Prayer,” “Mama Prayed,” “If I Could Hear My Momma Pray Again,” “Mama’s Prayers,” “Mama’s Letter to Jesus,” “Mother Taught Me How To Pray,” “I Heard My Mother Call My Name in Prayer,” and many more. Do you notice a theme there?
The image of the mother praying for her child is a common one. For some mothers it is certainly a true image; it would be true of my mother and both of my grandmothers. For other people, perhaps it doesn’t ring true. Perhaps that’s not how you experienced your mother. Whether it’s true in any specific family or not, the image, especially in country or bluegrass music of a generation or two back, is so common as to be almost a stereotype.
That’s not so surprising, is it? I don’t know if any of you are bluegrass kinds of people, but those of you who are mothers or fathers, you pray for your children, don’t you? Sure. And those of us who are not parents pray for our nieces and nephews. We pray for the missing girls in Chibok, we pray for children in disasters, we pray in a lot of different ways for children whether we are mothers or fathers or not. And if we grew up in the church, chances are that our mothers prayed for us.
Have any of you ever listened to someone praying for you? Maybe your mother, maybe your father, maybe someone else. Maybe it was a setting like this one, where the pastor prayed for you along with a number of other people or situations. Maybe it was as a part of a commissioning service or an anointing service. Maybe it was your mother, or a close friend, in an intimate setting of some kind.
There can be a lot of feelings tied up in listening to someone pray for you. When it’s been me, I have had a sense of being deeply cared for and deeply loved. There’s been a sense of feeling humbled, humbled that someone else would take the time to pray for me, that someone else would care enough about me to lift me up to God and say words on my behalf that express their feelings and their concern. There are times that there is vulnerability in letting someone pray for you. I may ask you to pray that I lose weight. But when you start to pray, it’s up to you what you pray for. I don’t have control over what you say or what you pray for.
When someone prays for you, whether it’s your mother or someone else, it’s an interesting experience. It’s something that opens up the possibilities for a lot of different feelings.
Mary Hinkle Shore, a pastor from North Carolina, brought up the question of what it is like to listen to someone pray for you that I mentioned earlier, and also pointed out something that it would be easy to miss about our gospel reading. Let’s set the stage. This is Jesus’s last night with the disciples. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, when Jesus prays he goes to Gethsemane and the disciples are a little ways away and they fall asleep. Here in John the prayer is a little different. In John 16 Jesus is talking to the disciples, explaining what is about to happen, and then at the beginning of chapter 17 he begins to pray aloud. Right there in front of the disciples. The disciples are there, and they are listening.
We could read this passage as a call to evangelism. After all, Jesus talks in his prayer about “those who will believe in me through (the disciples’) word.” In the Bible the disciples often serve as our representatives, so Jesus is talking about the people that we reach out to, the people we share the gospel with. Jesus is talking about people that we will touch and share with in any number of ways, people who need a right relationship with Christ and with their neighbors.
Jesus also talks about a desire that all who believe “may be one,” to be a part of one body. A lot of people over the years have thought that refers to ecumenical relationships, relationships between different denominations and different traditions within the Christian faith. That’s one of the things that the Office of Public Witness works with, our ecumenical relationships and our ecumenical responses to issues in the world. It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if all of Christianity could speak with one voice and truly be part of one body. It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if we could all find our truest identities within the body of Christ and let all of the other differences go.
But Shore notes that’s not what Jesus is saying at all. You see, Jesus isn’t talking to the disciples. The disciples are hearing him, but they are not who he is talking to. And Jesus isn’t talking to us. We’re reading about it a couple of thousand years later. Jesus is talking to God. Jesus is praying, praying for the disciples and praying for us. And it is our privilege to be able to listen in.
It’s not a surprise that someone like our mothers, or our fathers, or other friends or family members might pray for us. It is kind of a surprise at first, before we think about it, that Jesus prays for us.
That’s not a new feeling. In Psalm 8 verses 3 and 4 it says, speaking of God, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” Thousands of years before the birth of Jesus, the Bible records the surprise and amazement of the Psalmist that God thinks about humans at all.
It’s not just surprising that Jesus prays for us, that God and Jesus talk about us. Something else that is surprising is what it is they pray for. That we may reach people with God’s love, yes, and that all who believe may be one, yes, but there’s more. And it’s that “more” that I find most surprising. Here’s verse 26 again, with Jesus speaking in prayer to God about the disciples: “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” That’s the part that is the most powerful for me.
Jesus prays that the same love God has for him would be in us. That’s a powerful love. That’s a love that let Jesus do miracles. That’s a love that helped Jesus feed thousands with some loaves and some fishes. That’s a love that empowered Jesus to raise people from the dead. That’s a love that raised Jesus himself from the dead. And that’s the love that Jesus prays that God will put into us.
I said that there is a vulnerability, a giving up of control when you listen to someone else pray for you. That’s true. But there is also the possibility of power. The very real possibility of the power of love.
I am empowered when I know that other people are praying for me. I am empowered because I know that I am not alone. I am empowered because I know that there are other people who care.
I am also empowered when I know that my mom or my dad are praying for me. I am empowered because I know that in my family I have been fortunate to be raised in a tradition of faith, in a place surrounded by love, and in a context where people believe in me and want only the best for me.
And I am empowered when I know that Jesus is praying for me. I am empowered because I know that Jesus’s prayers are answered, and that Jesus wants me to have within me the same love with the same power that he had within him.
There is an old hymn that says there is power in the blood. That’s true. As I heard on Stained Glass Bluegrass many times there is power in a mother’s prayer. And that’s true. Finally, there is power in God’s love; God’s love made real in the life of Jesus, and that same love made real in our lives here and now. Let us pray for others as others have prayed for us, and let us live out of that power and out of that love. Amen.