Livestreamed service

John 17:1, 6-23, from the First Nations Version of the New Testament

        We all know the prayer that Jesus taught, and most of us remember that on the night before he was killed but after he’d had supper with his friends, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane and pour out his heart in prayer, agony, faithfulness, and a desire that what was bound to happen could somehow be avoided. Some of us are aware of the many gospel references to Jesus going off by himself to pray.

        Yet almost none of us know this prayer, the one that, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus prayed for his disciples while they were still gathered in that upper room, perhaps with crumbs and empty glasses still cluttering their shared table.

        Jesus prayed this prayer—from which the United Church of Christ takes its motto, “that they may all be one”—before he and his disciples left the safety and security of their community, before they went out together to face some of the worst that fearful, threatened, power-hungry, and disconnected humans can do to each other.

        It would be easy to focus on the content and context of this little-known and rarely remembered prayer.

        It is, after all, worth noting that Jesus is clearly at ease in speaking with God. It’s as if he’s just picking up where their last conversation left off. And if there is a heart-warming familiarity and intimacy in the way Jesus prays to the Holy One, there is also a deep love and concern for those he’s praying for, and a solid trust that he is leaving them in God’s good and gracious hands.

        It is, also worth noting what Jesus prayed for: that God would watch over his disciples with loving care and that they might know the same love that unites God and Jesus; that they would share the joy Jesus knows in being one with God; that God would protect them from the evil that separates humans from love; that they would be one with each other and one with God and Jesus; and that they would know God’s extravagant and unconditional love for them.

        Each one of those prayer requests is worth its own sermon.

        We could also consider prayer itself: some of the different kinds of prayer and why it’s important. If we want to be formal about it, we could say that there are prayers of praise and worship; there are the prayers of petition and intercession that we ask God to hear; and there is contemplative prayer, in which we simply sit in silence with Spirit.

        Most of our ways of thinking about prayer are far too narrow. Writer Anne Lamott focuses on the natural simplicity of prayer, identifying the three great prayers as “help!” “Thank you!” and “Wow!”

        The poet Mary Oliver, in one of her many prayer-poems, described prayer as “the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.” In another poem she said “the real prayers are not the words, but the attention that comes first.”

        The Sufi poet Rumi said famously that “there are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

        I want to suggest that prayer is about relationship with God. Prayer is about connection. Prayer is about imagination. Prayer is about participating with God in the creation of new possibilities. Prayer is a way of seeing the world and God’s role in it.

        Without prayer, we might think that everything is up to us. We might think that what happens or doesn’t happen depends entirely on what we do or don’t do, that it is function of nothing more than earthly powers and human action.

        But prayer informs our actions. Prayer changes our hearts. It invites us to ask for help, and it gives voice to our hopes and longings. Prayer encourages us to hope, and prayer validates our longings.

        Prayer also teaches us to love, as we become more aware of, and connected to, the needs of others. Prayer connects us to ourselves, because there is something about sitting and listening not only to God but also to our own hearts, that reveals our longings, our hopes, our needs, our state of being.
And so, instead of talking more about prayer this morning, I want to set aside some time for us to actually do it.

        You may have noticed that beneath the “Message” section of your bulletin, there is a lot of blank space underneath the words “Your Prayers Here.”

        To make this, I hope, a little less intimidating, I’m going to offer you some guidance in the form of four different categories. You don’t have to offer prayers in each category, but I do hope you will be as specific as possible in your thanksgivings, intercessions and petitions.

        I’m going to list the categories, which you may want to write down, and then we’re going to take about five minutes to pray. You may write down your prayers or not.

        The first category is Thanksgiving, and I invite you to write down three specific things or situations you’re thankful to God for.

        In the second category, I invite you to pray for a person or a family, writing down specific hopes for them.

        Third, offer prayers for one situation or issue. Again, be specific. In other words, don’t just say “may there be peace,” but think and pray about what is needed to make peace.

        And, finally, pray for yourself. Write down as many as three different longings, hopes, or needs you want God’s help with.

        When the five minutes is up, I’ll come back with some more invitations and instructions.

        For now: Let us pray:

        [After the prayer time]:

        That wasn’t so hard, was it?

        It’s amazing what feelings and hopes can arise in us when we give them space. It’s wonderful to feel that God is with us when we take the time to acknowledge Spirit. And what a gift it is to unburden ourselves, to remember that God cares. What a privilege it is, as the old hymn says, to carry everything to God in prayer.

        Notice the longings and desires that arose in you. Remember that feeling of God-with-you. Let it draw you back into prayer, whether that’s a plea whispered on the go, or a silent sit-down with Spirit.

        Now we’re going to move into the Prayers of the People, and we’re going to do that differently—because there’s nothing quite like the power of a community of beloveds praying together.

        Here’s how it will work: We’re going to invite you to stand up and share one of your prayers. And let me be clear—this is not Joys & Concerns, and we’re not looking for the story or the explanation behind your prayer; just the prayer itself.

        Online folks: You can type into the LiveChat one of your prayers.

        Folks in the sanctuary: We’re going to do our best to pass a couple of microphones around; the hope is that this will be something of a popcorn prayer: a request here, a request there, and then another and another and another.

        Think of these phrases or sentences as something like incense rising into the very heart of God. Think of these prayers as a thread that connects us to one another and ties all of us to God.

        And now, once again: Let us pray.