051621 Easter 7 Discerning Jesus’ Mission in his Prayer

The sermon begins at minute 15:00 of the video

Psalm 1; John 17:6-21

        This morning, we have voted to become a mission congregation. It’s a good day to review our mission statement: God loves us – no exceptions. We love God. We welcome all. We serve the world. That review is even more timely in light of Jesus’ final prayer. We heard part of that prayer today – the part that focuses on the protection needed by Jesus’ followers: Holy Father, protect them in your name, protect them from the evil one. According to the prayer, we need that protection because the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world.

       What a contrast to the view of Dorothy Sayers, who was quoted in an article in the Washington Post last week: “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?” she writes of humans at our prayers. “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” But her reason isn’t that the world has hated the church. She goes on, For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” In Sayer’s view, the crash helmets protect us from God’s power and call to mission, not from the world!

       So, what do we do with Jesus’ prayer for our protection? How do we reconcile Jesus’ prayer with our mission statement that says we welcome all, and with Jesus’ own example of welcoming all? For much of church history, the hatred of the world and the protection of Jesus were central parts of the life of believers and of the institution of the church. Churches have been known more for rejecting, judging, and isolating itself from the world. And that hasn’t changed in 2021. To welcome all sounds downright heretical in light of Jesus’ prayer, and in light of today’s Psalm that says, happy are those who do not take the path that sinners tread. Those phrases have certainly justified the church for finding ways to judge the world, distance itself from the world, and find the world lacking at many points.

       So, are we heretics at St. Athanasius? Well, probably; but not for wanting to welcome all. Because Jesus also said, God so loved the world that God sent the only begotten son into the world so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. That’s why it’s appropriate to welcome all. But how do we frame Jesus’ prayer for protection in terms of this all-welcoming embrace? To embrace someone is not to approve of everything within your embrace. Rather it is to say I care deeply for what is in my embrace. God calls us to be ever more inclusive in our welcoming embrace. But if we really care for all that is in that embrace, we will want to protect it. Jesus embraced the disciples, and he prayed for their protection. He also embraced those who would become disciples in the future. But part of that mission of welcoming was to protect them from evil in the world.

       And often the ones we need to protect against are those who refuse our embrace. These are the ones Jesus saw when he looked over Jerusalem and said, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather (embrace) your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing. (Lk. 13:34) What would that look like in Jerusalem today, where prophets include innocent children, and stones take the form of rockets? What would it look like in Los Angeles this morning? Prophets are always calling for justice in specific aspects of life. And their call always comes before enough people consider it convenient to embrace that justice. When the time finally arrives – when it is considered convenient, too many people that we should have embraced remain unprotected. Those who are supposed to be responsible for making the world a place of justice and love have abdicated their responsibility. The religious systems, the economic systems, and the political systems are not raising the quality of human life. We are in deep trouble as a society and a world.

       But there are stories of people in Jerusalem, Gaza, and other places who keep trying to embrace the enemy, to protect those who those systems don’t consider worthy of wellbeing. Those people inspire me. We see on our TV screens some people in Gaza and Jerusalem who are protecting those within their embrace from those who want to harm them. There are never enough, but their example is powerful. In his priestly prayer, Jesus sends us into the world – even the parts that hate us – with that mindset and heart set.

       Jesus’ prayer contains the seeds of that mind and heart set. Today, we are being asked to entrust our mission to the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles in a new way. No one likes to give up control. But that is what Jesus modeled for us from the moment he left God’s embrace to become human. In this prayer, he invites us into an intimate conversation with the one he called Father. As we listen to his prayer, we hear Jesus speak to our mission and to our relationships.

  1. First, we hear that life is a gift: They were yours, and you gave them to me. They know that everything you have given me is from you. When we know that all of life is a gift, we are freed from needing what the world makes us think we can only get from it. If we believe we depend on the world for what we need, we are susceptible to their whims. If we know we belong to God, the world can’t manipulate us to want things that don’t satisfy. It’s a lifelong process to grow into that freedom; it’s never too late to start.
  2. Then, we hear Jesus pray about the joyfulness of life: I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.We experience ecstasy when we move away from rigidly fixed situations, and explore new, unmapped dimensions of reality. There are old paths, old pain, old grief, and old sorrow; but there is no old joy. Joy is always connected to movement, renewal, rebirth, change, life. Traditional religion often has a frowning face, disapproving of behavior and ideas that fall outside what it considers proper. That’s not what Jesus offers. He wants our joy to be complete in ourselves. The church errs when it assumes that a new idea must be wrong. The Psalmist distinguishes the wicked from the righteous by describing the righteous as trees by flowing waters. When our lives cease to flow, when we judge everything and everyone from our static place, our welcome shrivels up. When we are like trees whose roots rest in flowing streams of water, our embrace gives life to ourselves and to others.
  3. It all comes together when we hear Jesus say, they do not belong to the world and I do not belong to the world. He doesn’t just say it once. He repeats it. He sends us into the world, but we don’t belong to the world. We say we are in but not of the world. That sounds trite after sow long, but it describes a profound reality. The theological word is incarnation. The prophetic word is solidarity. In mysticism we speak of presence with detachment. This is the framework for our mission, and for taking the step to entrust that mission to the larger church. There are risks in that. Part of us resists taking that step. But a mission that is rooted in the love of a God who excludes no one, and that loves God, welcomes all, and serves the world, must be willing to take risks. When we start from the knowledge that we already have enough, we can take risks. We don’t have to know how it is going to work out. We can even have doubts. But we can trust the one to whom we belong, and who promises to protect us.

   Let us embrace our mission and this new step in mission.