Rev. Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
May 24, 2020
This sermon has been transcribed from live video. To view a video of this sermon, please click here.
I speak to you today as a sinner to sinners, as the beloved of God to God’s beloved, as one called to bear witness to those called to bear witness. Amen.
“While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried into heaven.”
When I think about the Ascension these days, I don’t think like many Christians often do about the fact that Jesus is reigning in glory, and I know that that’s a powerful image for many because it tells them that God is in charge through Christ. But when I think about the Ascension these days, I think about the work that Christ has promised to do for us; the work of intercession, the work of praying on our behalf and lifting us up before God.
And one of the most amazing things for me, the kernel of truth that I want you to take away today, is to know that when you are praying a prayer of intercession, whether for yourself or for anybody else, that it’s as if your words go through Christ’s mouth to God because the invitation to intercede, the invitation to ask for God to help us and for God to somehow make things different for us, to somehow bless us in a time of trial or trouble. This is the substance of the gospel.
In all of our gospel passages that we have before us, all the gospels that we read, there are moments in which we find as we read in Matthew, seek and you will find, ask and it will be granted to you, knock and the door will be open to you. Prayer is key, and intercessory prayer is pivotal. Intercession is the ministry that Christ does on our behalf, and throughout His time, during His earthly ministry, Jesus was constantly in prayer for us.
And we’re told in Philippians beautiful words that are clear, we’re told that the Lord is near, do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication. With Thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God and the peace of God which passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. To ask God for the things that we need, to implore God to somehow get involved on our behalf or on the behalf of another, to lift up someone before God and ask for a blessing for them that you cannot even imagine. This is the substance of what it means to be a Christian. And this is one of those things where we have the most anxiety around. We are afraid to ask inappropriately, we’re afraid that we’re unworthy to ask. This is the heart and soul of what it means to worship God.
Years ago, I was working as a chaplain at a children’s hospital in Northeast DC, and there was a young man who I became friendly with. He had a terminal condition. His name was Abel, and he asked me to pray with him one day. And his prayer was incredibly specific. He said, would you please pray that somehow my mother could ask her friend and her friend would loan her his van so that I can go out to Arizona to see my father and to see the Grand Canyon once more.
And I sat down with him and we prayed fervently that somehow God would make this come true. Abel did not ask for God to take away his disease. He did not ask to be saved. He simply asked for that van. And it seemed like such an incredibly holy thing. And later when I was sharing with my colleagues in ministry that I had done that, they said, you should have helped him understand how difficult things were, or somehow couch the prayer so that if God would say no, that he wouldn’t have his entire relationship with God destroyed.
But I wanted to honor Abel’s simple prayer before God because I knew in my heart that that’s the kind of prayer that I give to God. My prayers before God are not particularly mature. I do not bring my best self before God. I do not somehow step into a place where I hold together all the things that I should hold together as a Christian.
When I am praying for deliverance, when I am experiencing incredible oppression, when I am experiencing some kind of loneliness, I just come before God as my raw self and I felt like I did not want to deny that chance of encounter for Abel. And as God would have it, the van came through and Abel made the trip, and he was able to see his father before he died and the Grand Canyon.
What does it mean for us to believe in a God who invites us to pray for ourselves and others continually? And what does it mean for us to live with a God in which we have things like COVID-19 in our midst, which seems to not answer every prayer that comes before Him?
I want to suggest to you that when we are talking about the mystery of intercession, we are stepping into the mystery of God-made flesh. And we are placing our entire trust in a kind of conversation that changes us from within and changes our world from without. And you and I never will see the full effect of our prayers. And this is why at the end of the day, Christianity pivots around an act of faith and an act of worship and an act of trust, and ultimately in a trust in a merciful god.
So that when we go before God and our prayers, and when we ask for those things, which seem to be so small, when we look at the incredible injustices in this world and the incredible violence in this world, and the incredible suffering in this world, and we go before God and ask Him for these small little interventions in our lives and the lives of others, we begin to realize how incredibly beautiful God’s love is for us.
Intercession is an invitation into relationship. It’s an invitation into a kind of trusting relationship with God and intimacy with God. And though we may not always get what we ask for, we know that God hears us through Jesus Christ and we know that Christ is with us when we pray, and that’s the mystery that we celebrate when we say that Christ has ascended to the Father and continually lifts us up in prayer.
The art I have before you today is by Louis Suter. He’s a Swiss artist. He was in very many ways a broken person. He was an accomplished musician, but then encountered incredible suffering when he began to suffer from arthritis and could not even hold a paintbrush towards the end of his life.
And at 52 he was basically consigned to what we would call a kind of hospice care. He was in hospice care in Switzerland for 20 years, and he began to continually paint these incredible themes around God and larger themes in life. And this is known as the Ascension. And he had to paint by just dipping his finger into the ink and somehow making these incredible figures.
And the image of Christ here is one in which Christ is praying a prayer of intercession. He’s lifting up His hands before God. And all around Him you have these different people experiencing different kinds of prayer and anguish. They’re coming to God and asking for Christ to pray for them. And in the background, you can see the kinds of images of the stars and the planets, all of which have their own glory beside the glory of the risen Lord, as we read in first Corinthians.
And finally, there are these incredible, wonderful lines of red that you’ll see in some of his paintings. And it’s not clear from the painting whether that’s meant to show how Christ can somehow reach beyond the divisions, the divides of heaven and earth. It can also mean somehow a kind of divine safety net that holds us all together because of the prayer of Christ.
What I like about this painting and which makes it powerful to me as a witness to the Ascension, isn’t simply the fact that it covered that subject matter, but that the painting itself was a kind of prayer and asking of God to intercede for him, Louis Suter in the midst of his own life and his own challenges and his own sufferings.
Over the last week, I’ve asked, uh, nine parishioners to talk about what does it mean to intercede? What does it mean to pray a prayer of intercession? What does it mean to come before God? And I asked these things of them because I wanted to give you a kind of testimony because one of the things that I want to remind you of is this moment in which you come before God, this moment of intercession, when oftentimes you feel so incredibly alone, you’re actually surrounded by a community of longing around you who are praying prayers, not only for you, but for everyone and even for themselves.
And so, one of the people who wrote me back was Joan Jensen, who immediately connected intercession to the intercession of Christ. And this is what she wrote:
“I am eternally blessed that my whole life has been undergirded by the many men and women of God who have interceded and prayed on my behalf through the years, beginning with my mother, followed by Sunday school teachers, youth leaders, friends and elders, and my childhood church, spiritual mentors along the way, friends in 20 year long fellowship groups, and lifelong friends, far and near, and our pastor of 40 years who still prays for both of us.
“I was unaware of the love and concern of some of these praying Christians at the time they were praying for me, but some of these people prayed me through major life crises at my request. I’m grateful to God for their loving care and presence throughout my life.”
Leslie McNamara, another parishioner, writes that, “From the Latin intercession means to go between. So I understand that when we pray for someone else, we are a conduit of the Holy spirit of God and of Jesus, asking for a kind of reconciliation with God and forming a kind of Trinity.”
Francis Hammond, who joined the church just a couple of years ago, wrote this:
“Intercession, I think, connects us to others. I don’t know how that changes the outcome, but I think the act of the prayer can change the journey. I tell someone I will pray for them. I hold them in prayer offering my love and imagination for them to God. This changes me and my relationship and my openness to the person or need I am praying for. Later because of the prayer inside me, I may be open or paying attention in a way I wouldn’t have been without the prayer.”
Jessica Neeper, who has been an incredible pillar of this church working with our children for many years wrote this:
“Regardless of the size, importance, or any other human form of measure, we offer prayers filled with emotion and a heart of trust to the very throne of God. At times, we trust in God’s divine will and when we do, God’s peace fills our hearts. I wonder if intercessory prayer may well be the single most important work we can do in our time here on earth.”
Denise Cruz writes that a call to be an intercessor for people came out of the blue through family and friends who asked her to pray and these intercessions that she offers are personal and moving. “I ask God to take these requests knowing that the answers will come not in our time, but in God’s time. I confidently release them to God.”
And Mel Carpenter wrote me that, “I believe that intercessory prayer is not just a prayer for the people, but an act of belief in Christ Jesus as our Redeemer. By sharing the person or circumstance before God, we can be changed by his attitude toward that condition.”
Barb Klein, another newcomer, says, “My prayers of intercession are almost always framed with, thy will be done. That way I try not to tell God what I want. Rather I ask for what is best.”
Someone who wants to remain anonymous wrote that, “The one to whom I pray is already completely attentive to the one for whom I pray. My prayer is only my slight hand on the great wheel of God’s mercy and love. I am responsible for nothing but cooperation as God works out the wellbeing of the one for whom we are both concerned; I, blindly and temporally; God, clearly and eternally.”
And finally, Barbara Prinzi wrote this:
“Two months ago I visited a friend in the hospital for what I knew would be the last time. I prayed for grace to find the right words. And for God to bring him home peacefully. We had an unforgettable visit, and as I was leaving, I kissed him on the forehead and told him how grateful I was that our paths had crossed and that I loved him. He said, ‘I love you too, Barb.’ He died the next day. My prayers were answered. What it meant to me? Everything.”
I offer these testimonies because in this time in which we have to be away from each other and which paradoxically, the social distance between us is our way of loving each other, I want to remind you of the fact that we are surrounded by a community of prayer; people praying for you and people praying for me and all of us praying together. And all of those prayers are being held up and lifted up and spoken to the father by Christ. And the life of Jesus that He lived, the way in which He brought out of suffering and death, somehow healing and reconciliation.
That is the promise that no matter what we pray to God, no matter what seems to be God’s answer, that somehow God will envelop and hold together all things and redeem all things just as He redeemed all things for Christ.
And so our prayers are to a resurrected Lord who knows that God will resurrect and change all things, even in this present challenge, even in this time of trial, even in this time of fear, even in this time of brokenness, even in this time of waiting, even in this time of longing, even in this time in which we sometimes feel alone.
To borrow words from St. Paul, I never cease to give thanks for the community of this church and its prayers. They have sustained me and they are sustaining you. And we all need to step into them together more than ever. On this day of Ascension, we give thanks for it.