Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on May 16, 2021

Posted by on Sun, May 16, 2021 in Easter, Sermons

The Seventh Sunday of Easter:
The Sunday after Ascension Day

May 16, 2021

O God, we give thanks this day that Jesus prayed for his disciples, even as his own death was soon to come. May we do likewise. Amen.

Prayer is hard sometimes. I think many people feel awkward praying aloud in front of others. They don’t teach you have to be ‘good at prayer’ in seminary, and we Episcopalians are especially thankful for the beautiful words of the Book of Common Prayer. Being prayerful is never about the words, it’s about coming to God, and there’s no genuinely offered prayer which God doesn’t welcome and hear. Even if at times we sound as confusing and curious as what Jesus prays for the disciples today —and I have to admit he does sound somewhat circular and repetitious here, and as if the prayer folds back and forth on itself. Mine do too sometimes, and it reminds me that putting them into words that others hear is different from my private ones. The disciples hear Jesus pray, and it’s more monologue than dialogue or community prayer. So, I wonder what the disciples heard in his prayer—

Did it make sense? Did they hear it as loving and asking protection for them, or did they hear how little they belonged to the world, or that they were hated, how Jesus was actually leaving them, abandoning them? Did all the ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ sound confusing, who is being given to whom and whose are they now? Were they trying to fit his prayer into their faith? Quite possibly, all of this. More than anything, I wonder if they caught the one unrepeated little word buried in the middle of it all; joy. Jesus prays “that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” I hope they did, even in that time of apprehension, change and uncertainty around the future and their lives with Jesus. I hope they heard his prayer that his joy be in them.

Ours too has been a rough year, and I wonder where you’ve known joy in it. It isn’t about being happy, or as though we can just put on an optimistic smile and expect to evoke joy on demand. It comes upon us, sometimes where it doesn’t seem to belong at all. There’s also no inciting or predicting joy even if we think it should be automatic — in things like weddings, childbirth, mountaintops, remission. In times of depression or deep grief we may wonder if joy is even possible. Like when the only faithful way forward sacrifices something of yourself, when finally becoming who you are, means giving up on things you thought you wanted or wanted to be. 

Jesus prays that his joy is made complete in us, and I look around and wonder what he’d think of our world; of the injustice, destruction, betrayal, hate-filled polarization, the thirst for power. Wait, he lived all that too. And still he prays for joy so abundant it is ‘complete.’ Maybe this is precisely the time for it! It’s present throughout his story; providing the best wine in Cana when they’d just run out, feeding followers who expected they’d leave hungry, walking to them across stormy seas when they despaired, healing those who’d lost all hope and community. Right up until the end when a horrible crucifixion darkened their world, came the joy of resurrection.

In this prayer Jesus is holding joy alongside impending suffering and pain, and although the latter is inevitable his joy is always present with us, complete in us. Today we are still in Eastertide, and this is exactly what the resurrection means. Our church calendar may say it’s the “Seventh Sunday of Easter” but we know every Sunday is Easter and that his love for us and prayer for joy is ever-present. Even as next Sunday is Pentecost, our call is to live Easter every day for the rest of our lives. 

Jesus prays all of this (and much more) for them and with them listening, and when he finishes he and the disciples immediately cross the Kidron Valley to the garden, where he is betrayed, arrested, bound, delivered to the authorities, and will be crucified. These are the words he wants to leave them with, knowing what is about to happen. Here we see both his humanity and divinity, bound together in the Word become flesh. In praying for his joy to be complete in us, even when the worst that can happen does, we are being shown, promised, that resurrection joy is always present. We may not see or feel it, we often don’t expect it, but it’s there, quietly waiting for us.

Recently we’ve had on our prayer list a family related to a St. Michael’s family, who have been living this very reality. After a hard-won pregnancy, the mother contracted COVID-19 about a week before delivery. Their baby daughter was born healthy but the mum was taken to ICU for treatment. I can imagine the fear and worry they lived with that week, the birth they expected would be so very different, coupled with the joy of their new, and thankfully healthy, baby. The mum also got pneumonia, she had to be transported to a different hospital and intubated. She received good care and was in many people’s prayers, and now (four weeks later) she is home with her husband and new babe. I don’t know the family, and as I prayed for them I wondered at what they went through. A new birth is joyful, this time amidst dire health concerns. Finally coming home and reuniting was, I’m sure, an indescribable joy, even having missed those first weeks of life together. Joy is there when we can’t imagine it being so. Jesus wanted us to hear that.

Being human certainly means we may live through some horrible things, endure trials, tragedy, witness evil around us, we may even feel it reaching for us. Our Easter faith says joy is yet present. I know many of us are excited for worshipping together in person once again, as am I. There will also be the sadness of those absent; some are not ready to come into such proximity, some of those we love have moved, and some have died. We are right to be both saddened and joyful. We’ll delight to receive Communion in our familiar bread, but we will miss sharing his cup for now, we’ll sing out our praises together but may not be able to exchange the longed-for hugs or handshakes of our Lord’s peace. We are also the ones Jesus prayed for, whom he said were ‘given to him’. Jesus asks many things in this prayer, but here he is declarative; “I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.”

That young mother wanted to hold on tight to her baby, and she knew she had to let go in that moment for her child’s safety. Her husband had to let his wife go when everything in him must have cried out for bonding, to stay close. When they came together again, being filled with joy didn’t mean there wasn’t also a place in their hearts filled with the sadness of what was missed. Jesus knew the pain and grief of saying goodbye to those he loved, aching for what they would soon see happen to him, and he also held fast to the joy of coming to them again in the resurrection. We have the gift of trusting that Jesus has gone there already; knowing just how awful it is to let go, and at the same time declare his unbridled joy complete in our daily Eastering. Amen.

© 2021 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.