Sunday, May 10, 2009

Jesus’ Prayer

© 2009, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 10, 2009
Mothers’ Day

John 17:6-19

Holy Father,
protect them in your name that you have given me,
so that they may be one, as we are one.

A friend of mine sent me a poem by Wendell Berry the other day, and since I can barely resist poems, and inasmuch as it is a poem entitled To My Mother,1 today, Mother’s Day, seemed like a good day to read it out loud for you.
I was your rebellious son,
do you remember? Sometimes
I wonder if you do remember,
so complete has your forgiveness been.
So complete has your forgiveness been
I wonder sometimes if it did not
precede my wrong, and I erred,
safe found, within your love,
prepared ahead of me, the way home,
or my bed at night, so that almost
I should forgive you, who perhaps
foresaw the worst that I might do,
and forgave before I could act,
causing me to smile now, looking back,
to see how paltry was my worst,
compared to your forgiveness of it
already given. And this, then,
is the vision of that Heaven of which
we have heard, where those who love
each other have forgiven each other,
where, for that, the leaves are green,
the light a music in the air,
and all is unentangled,
and all is undismayed.1
Not too many months ago another friend of mine — a good poet in his own right, and a fellow pastor — recommended to me a recording of a poetry reading by Billy Collins. Collins is a former U.S. Poet Laureate. I wondered how interesting a recorded poetry reading could be, but I was ashamed to have asked even myself that question after I listened to the CD the first time. I have listened to it several times since.

Anyway, Collins read one poem which, as I prepared for today, I decided seemed almost custom-made for this passage about the protecting, mothering care of God through the gift of the name of Christ in the prayer that Jesus uttered in John 17. The title of the poem is The Lanyard2. In it, Collins remembers a craft project at summer camp years ago:
The other day ...
... I found myself in the “L” section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie, nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past —
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one if that’s what you did with them.
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold facecloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift — not the archaic truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
“And now we are even.” How often has that phrase passed human lips over time? Is being “made even” even a possibility in the world of human relationships? There is blessing in recognizing the reality that the deepest truth of our lives is not about being made even. It is about lives given to loving others with self-yielding and sacrificial love. It is about receiving the love of God that is high as the stars and deep as the oceans, a love that is as impossible to repay as it is to repay our great-grandparents for having had the wisdom to have given birth to folks who would one day be the parents who gave birth to our parents. It is a deep truth about loving others and not waiting for a payback. It’s not “Deal or No Deal,” a love like this. It is simply given. That is all. It’s not tit-for-tat, even steven, compromise, or even mutual indulgence. No, it is a love that gives, and finds all the blessing it needs hidden in the giving.

In his prayer in the 17th chapter of John, Jesus says, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them [meaning the disciples, or all those who call on Jesus’ name, or, by extension, us!] into the world.” As disciples, we are not saddled with a need to manufacture our own calling. This is an assuring word. The very nature of our faith is to carry it to others, and that faith is a gift given whether we actually perform as good disciples, ambassadors for Christ, or sit in our rooms and do nothing. The gift to us from Christ cannot be returned to him by anything we have to give. Our only options are to pass the gift along, or to do nothing. In either case, there is no payback, the gift is ours anyway, no strings attached.

Some of you — I suspect very few of you — may know that the church I served in Salem was chosen by the media people at the General Assembly offices in Louisville to host the videotaping of our Christmas Eve service, which was broadcast nationally at 11:30 PM on Christmas Eve back in 2003 to an audience of a few million people. It was quite an experience for me and for the congregation, but that’s not the point of sharing this story. The next summer, in 2004, I was at a meeting of our denomination’s General Assembly in Richmond, Virginia. That meeting was the last week of my service on the Council of the General Assembly, and I more or less lurked about during the week, bumping into a few old friends, looking in vain for ways to make my lame-duck self useful. Late in the week, I was standing in the rear of the assembly hall as the delegates worked their way through their business.

A young man walked by me and glanced at my name tag. He stopped, looked more intently at the tag, then at me, as though he disbelieved what the tag said. I even worried for an instant whether I had inadvertently picked up someone else’s tag by mistake. Then he looked me in the eye and asked, “You are Rob Elder, the Rob Elder?” as if I were someone of some significance, and not just another in a long line of lame duck council members, waiting another 24 hours before I could catch a flight home. He grabbed me by the hand and said, “Yours is the church that hosted the Christmas Eve service for CBS television last year, isn’t it?” I nodded, said that yes, that was me, er… us, whatever.

He proceeded to thank me profusely for the gift that service was to his church and to him personally. And he appreciated the theme of gifts that characterized the service. Then he said, “I especially appreciated the story about your father and the golf clubs he left behind when he died, the unexpected blessing they turned out to be for you.” I recall thinking, “Always remember to be careful what you say, you never know what people will hear!” He went on, “You know, my father died not too long ago, and I’ll never forget the last time we played golf together. He taught me how to play and I vividly remember carrying his clubs from the clubhouse for the very last time...”

And we went out of the hall to sit, and we shared a brief conversation about our fathers and what really is the meaning of gifts.

Michael Lindvall, a pastor friend, once wrote, “Life together stretches us, pulls us, strains us, but in it we are nourished by the struggle itself. It is the best chance Providence gives most of us to grow out of ourselves and into something more like what we were meant to be. Life together is the welcome tether that kindly but relentlessly binds our ravenous egos. … The only thing harder than getting along with other people is getting along without them…”3

God gave us Jesus Christ to save us. Jesus gave himself. We can’t thrust the gift back; as with my father’s golf clubs, there is no “back” where we can send it. It is just there for us to deal with. We can look at it, use it, study it, maybe even try to make a lanyard or two to hang somewhere, but nothing we do will make us even, nothing will fully repay Jesus for his gift of himself to us, to the world. Our only option, if we are moved by a need to give back, to be even steven, is, as a friend of mine told me once, to avoid trying to “give back,” and instead “give forward.” It’s what stewardship, support of mission, support of ministries for children and young people in the church are about. It’s what we’re always yammering about in the church, drumming up enthusiasm for things we are often reluctant to do, especially if they involve giving away our money or our time or both.

Well, it’s no news to any of you that today is Mothers’ Day. This is always a difficult day for preachers, not because we don’t or didn’t have mothers or because we have something against them. It’s just that it’s a Hallmark holiday, not a liturgical one. Standing up to praise mothers on a given day is not difficult, we all know how important mothers are in the shaping of their children. But we have, parading through the back of our minds on a day like this, words of the gospels such as these from Matthew:
“While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”4
We recognize from this, not a sudden desire on the part of Jesus to disdain his mother, rather, we see a new idea of what it means to be family emerging in the very beginnings of the Christian church. It is because of this and other sayings of Jesus that early Christians referred to others who were not blood relations as “brother,” and “sister.” The familial nature of the church was meant to be understood as a sort of bond as strong, even, as any bonds we may have known in our own families.

Jesus’ prayer in our reading from John speaks to this very thought:

Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me,
so that they may be one, as we are one.

This suggests what it means to be part of a family of faith. It means, both figuratively and literally, to be part of the family of God, and it is a big family, not confined to one household, to one church, to one congregation, but part of the whole household of the family of faith wherever it gathers, and under whatever denominational name. To be one with this family is to be part of a big house, an immense family tree, an enterprise that is so much larger than we are, yet which so intimately values each one of us. That is the point of Jesus prayer for unity. It is the point of our gathering together any time, on any given day.

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserve

1 “To My Mother” from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, by Wendell Berry, Counterpoint Press, Copyright © 1998.
2 From Billy Collins Live, Random House Audio,
3 Quoted by Lindvall from his own book in a sermon, “Can’t Live With ‘Em; Can’t Live Without ‘Em,” preached at the Brick Presbyterian Church, New York City, May 8, 2005.
4 Matthew 12:46-50.