The Prayer of Stubborn Ounces
Based on John 17:1-11, 20-23
One of the most powerful moments of prayer that I have experienced, is to be with two or three other people, to share truly what we are struggling with, hoping for, in fear of etc. and then, having listened heart to heart, do a round of prayers, where I pray for the person on my left, who receives the prayer. Then they pray for the person on their left, who ends up praying for me. We pray together each Sunday, mostly I say the words, but all of us seek to be one in heart and mind as we pray. But it’s not always easy in the context of public worship to say, ”This is what is on my heart and mind; this is what I need prayer about.” So… (I issued an invitation for written prayer requests which I would incorporate into my prayers during the week.)
Let us turn to the gospel and listen in on Jesus’ prayer…
As I said in introducing the scripture, John’s gospel has Jesus offering this prayer in the context of what we now call the “Last Supper, and, just after Jesus acknowledges that these folks whom has chosen will deny, betray and run away, he prays for them.
Jesus’ prayer may sound a little exclusive for our UC sensibilities. 17:9 says ‘I’m not praying for the whole world – just these who you gave me.’ Our understanding of God is that God is love, and therefore loves all of creation, every creature and every person. But this prayer can affirm that individuals and small groups matter as well.
Jesus doesn’t pray for the whole world here – but for a motley group of people that he knows don’t understand what he’s trying to tell them, and he already acknowledges that they will abandon him, at least for a time. Yet he prays for them, for their unity together – they’re gonna need it.
There aren’t many of them. The disciples were a small group; twelve men at that time and at least six women that we can name. Yet despite their failings, they, and in turn we, are entrusted with the gospel. Jesus prayed “I entrust to them the message that you entrusted to me…”
This intimate group of flawed human beings changed the world – for the better – when they leaned on each other and on the Holy Spirit, promised to be ever-present with them.
They didn’t do it by becoming a powerful Empire, but by gathering for prayer, for discernment, for living out of an allegiance to a God who, characterized by Jesus, has compassion at the core of everything.
When the United Church of Canada was being formed 89 years ago, this prayer of Jesus was a central piece of theology for the founding denominations. The phrase “that all may be one” graces the UC crest. I invite you to look at the bulletin cover- and go through the symbols which represent our evolving understanding of that prayer…
The United Church crest contains: an open Bible – representing the Congregational churches with their emphasis on God’s truth makes people free. The dove, emblematic of the Holy Spirit, comes from the Methodist church. The burning bush refers to the bush Moses saw that burned but was not consumed, and it comes from the Presbyterian church. The alpha and omega symbolizes the eternal living God, in the fullness of creation.
The oval shape echoes the outline of a fish, an early Christin symbol. The X at the centre is a traditional symbol of the Saviour. Jesus’ prayer “that all may be one” is present in the perimeter ribbon in Latin as “Ut Omnes Unum Sint.” Also in the perimeter in 1925 were the words “The United Church of Canada”.
In 1980, the crest was amended to reflect the two founding European traditions in Canada, as the French ”L’Eglise Unie du Canada” was added.
Again, our evolving understanding of connection expanded and at General Council in 2012, another phrase was added to reflect our connection to the First Nations of Canada. The Mohawk words “Akwe Nia `Tetewa’:neren” (All my relations) was added to the perimeter ribbon, and the background colour changed from a stately navy blue to the colours of the Aboriginal medicine wheel – black, yellow, red and white.
On this Environment Sunday, may we, before it is too late, acknowledge our connectedness to each other – to other peoples, other species, to earth, air, fire and water. Speaking of water, remember the water I brought back from the Jordan River, to be used for baptism? The water drawn from the river was murky and polluted, so I settled it, filtered it, boiled it, and bottled it. I looked at it on my shelf the other day and guess what?! It was creating its own life! Little green bits were growing like tiny galaxies in a liquid universe. It was really very humbling and awe-inspiring to think this `lower’ life form could survive being boiled like that!
Well – on to other connections. As you know, Kris and I attended BC Conference this past weekend in Nanaimo, and Kris will be sharing her reflections with you on June 15th as Jim and I will have just arrive in Ireland. At Conference we were asked to share with one other person at our table, a time when we had felt really connected to the wider church. I ended up being in conversation with Jim Angus, a hereditary Gitxsan chief, and former president of BC Conference. For him, the deep connection happened at the 1989 Conference meeting in Terrace B.C. where the church committed their voices and their money – a pledge to raise one million dollars toward First Nations Land Claims in BC. The words and the actions of this Conference, he told us, prodded the national government into reinstating help with paying for legal fees for Land Claims. See how powerful a few willing people are!
Hearing Jim’s story gave me the push I needed to act on something burning in my heart. I arrived at the Conference with the news that on Monday, May 19th, the Israeli military, had bulldozed 1500 fruit trees on the Nassar family farm (a.k.a. the Tent of Nations) in Palestine. If you saw my presentation on Israel and Palestine, you may recall that the Tent of Nations was one of the last places we visited, it was a ray of hope in that troubled land. Their motto is: “We refuse to be enemies.”
Anyway, inspired by Jim’s story and hounded by my own conscience, I drafted a proposal (for discussion) which came to the floor of Conference on Saturday afternoon. It was talked about so at least another 450 people know what’s going on, and can choose to respond if they will. I believe our voice and our actions do have power, but we can have no power if we are silent in the face of injustice. Writing the proposal and speaking to it was my way of praying “that all may be one.”
When I feel hopelessness try to immobilize me, I lean on these words by philosopher poet Bonaro W. Overstreet who wrote: “You say the efforts that I make / will do no good; / they will never prevail / to tip the hovering scale / where justice hangs in the balance. / I don’t think / I ever thought they would, / but I am prejudiced beyond debate / in favor of my right to choose which side / shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.” —
It is often a small group that gets great things going. The great anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
And so we take our place, smallish in number, large in love. Unique and united, one is mind and spirit, leaning on each other, and carried in the heart of Jesus, who prayed for those who, through faith and failings, had the desire and courage to follow his teachings. Lord Jesus, pray for us, and we will pray for one another. Amen.