John 17:6-19 – 7th Sunday of Easter – May 20, 2012 – 8 am Service
The overhearing of conversations can occur in two ways: intentionally and unintentionally. I’m reminded of my grandmother’s telephone in the mid-1950s. Unlike our private telephone line at home, Nana had a party line. Several parties shared the same phone line so at any given moment you could pick up the phone to make a call and discover someone else was using the line. I remember as a child in Nana’s hallway intentionally slowly and quietly picking up the receiver to listen in only to be reprimanded by Nana and quickly instructed to put the phone back down in its cradle.
With regard to unintentionally overhearing conversations, all I can think of is the M&Ms – the M&M candies on TV. Maybe you’ve seen the commercial where the bright red plain M&M and the bright yellow peanut M&M are talking at the office water cooler. The red M&M is making disparaging remarks about Ms. Brown M&M because she thinks she’s so special just as she appears behind him. Of course, when red M&M makes that discovery, he quickly tries to cover up his blunder by attributing his remarks to someone else, but by the irritated look on Ms. Brown M&M’s animated face, the damage has already been done.
But there’s another scenario. It’s quite something else to speak aloud with the intention of being overheard. Jesus’ prayer to his Father that we just heard is spoken in the presence of his disciples. They hear the words Jesus is offering up on their behalf and we can’t help but wonder how that must have felt. In John’s gospel, this is the night of the Last Supper. Supper is over now and Judas has already left and Jesus is preparing his disciples for what the future will bring. When he finishes speaking to them, he looks up to heaven and says, “Father,” and begins his prayer.
As a pastor, I have the privilege each week of praying for you and the people you love in a manner designed for you to overhear. I also get to pray with you and for you individually when the need arises, but it has been in recent weeks and months that I have taken notice of the prayer requests of those close to death.
Jesus is close to death in our scripture this morning. He is about to leave this world and what he asks God for is protection and blessing on his disciples who will still be in it. I have found the same to be true of the people we have known as they are about to leave this world. They are aware that they will no longer be here and, rather than ask God for ease of their own pain, or escape, or even a safe landing on the other side, they ask that I pray for their loved ones who will be left behind here in this world, that they be protected by God, that they know joy. And so often I have wished that those people who are prayed for were there to overhear it.
Because there’s something very special about hearing another person pray for you. I became aware of this in seminary when a fellow classmate shared with the group his accidentally overhearing his grandmother praying aloud for him one time when he was younger and how moved he was by it. That night I went home and I wrote a prayer for my son and shared it aloud at the dinner table. The change in his demeanor after hearing it was significant. (I can’t say it was a permanent change in his demeanor, but for the moment it was rather moving.)
Praying for someone within their earshot sends a message to them that they are loved and important enough to talk to God about, to dare to address the Holy of Holies and ask for something on their behalf. Professor Gail O’Day of Candler School of Theology points out the boldness of Jesus in his prayer. She writes: “Jesus is bold enough to hold God to God’s promises: You have given, you have sent, you have loved; now keep, sanctify, let them be one…”
Several of the young people who will be confirmed at 10 AM this morning shared in their written statements of faith this year the influence on them of a parent or grandparent’s prayer life. It’s pretty powerful. What’s even more powerful is when we remember that we are people for whom Jesus prays. Through our baptisms, we are his; and because we are his, we are God’s. Jesus says to his Father this morning: All mine are yours…I am no longer in the world, but they are. Protect them. Guard them. I’m not asking that you take them out of the world, but protect them while they’re in it. Or “keep them” as the earlier English translation reads. Keep them.
And we need that divine protection because we are in this world – the one that God so loves and the one that is named by Jesus, which at the same time is resistant to God’s love and can lead us astray. Kate Huey of the national setting of the United Church of Christ describes the latter world as the one where “power and security, victory at all costs, wealth and possessions, prestige and honor, numbing our emotions and suppressing our hope…win out over love, humility, justice, peace,” and she calls us to re-order our lives.
Perhaps one way to begin is to intentionally allow our words to be overheard:
• to thank God aloud in front of your spouse for the great dinner he prepared
• to thank God aloud in front of your child for having sent her into your midst to be part of your life
• to thank God aloud in front of your aging parent for the life she gave you
• to ask God for help in front of your adolescent as he struggles with friends or school • to ask God for help in front of your spouse whose dignity is diminishing amidst long-term unemployment
• to ask God for help in front of your co-parent as she drowns in a sea of sports schedules and school appointments and family laundry
• to ask God for protection in front of the new graduate in your life who is about to get a dose of the world Jesus laments.
Within the walls of the church, we do this all the time. This morning we will ask God’s blessings on our Confirmands’ continued faith journeys within their earshot. We do it for newly married couples as they clasp their hands and make forever promises. We do it for grieving mourners during memorial services. We do it for new babies and their parents as they are welcomed into the body of Christ through Baptism.
This morning we are invited to take this practice outside the walls of the church and into our homes and everywhere you know you will be overheard. Each person who hears you will find this world a little easier to bear while they are in it and God will hear you, too.