April 9, 2017 / A WAY OF LOVING - INTERCESSION / Sara Wolbrecht / Mark 11:1-10
On this Palm Sunday, my friends, as I said earlier: not only have we just heard the telling of Jesus’ triumphant ride into Jerusalem surrounded by shouts of Hosanna – in fabulous style with the help of all of you – not only are we now beginning our journey through Holy Week, living through the final, history-changing events of Jesus’ final days, but also today we reach our sixth and final prayer practice for this season of Lent.
We have positioned ourselves with a certain posture for this season, looking at a moment from the Last Supper, this moment that is named in John’s gospel, when John reclined against Jesus’ chest during the meal, and it is believed that in that moment John heard the heartbeat of God – and that we can position ourselves in a posture of listening, as if we are always wearing a stethoscope attentive to how the heartbeat of God pulses in us, in each other, in the earth. We just need to listen.
Last week, we looked to a piece of Lazarus’ story – how when Jesus’ dear friend Lazarus died, Jesus came to be with Mary and Martha, and joined them in their grief and tears – Jesus wept. What a profound moment in the gospel story, as we see our God as one who grieves, who cries – who shows us how tears are good. And we spent time lamenting – naming our anger, sadness, and disappointment.
And now, on this Palm Sunday, in Jesus’ story, we are only a few days after Lazarus’ death and miraculous rising, as we step into Jerusalem.
In Jerusalem – what we have just read. It is almost the Passover, the greatest of all the Jewish feasts. People from the entire known world are making their pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate this festival. Passover is the annual holiday that commemorates the first Passover, when God freed the Jews from Egyptian bondage during the days of Moses. Think: the 10 plagues of Egypt, blood on the doorposts, Moses splitting the water of the Red Sea in half. That’s what they’re remembering. …Hundreds of thousands of people were commuting to Jerusalem as they did every year – this is crazy holiday traffic here.
But this year, as the crowds grew in the city, they had more than the Passover on their minds.... There was a lot of murmuring about Jesus. Word of his miracles had spread - especially the most recent unbelievable miracle of Lazarus – so many had heard Jesus teach and witnessed his healing and people were looking for him, curious, were these stories true?
The heartbeat that day in Jerusalem – there was a palpable pulsing anticipation for what God might do.
To get us into our final prayer practice, let’s dive into one piece of this scene in Jerusalem. There are so many layers of meaning to what is happening as Jesus parades through the crowds of thousands in Jerusalem with palm branches and a donkey. But the one thing we’ll dig into is this peculiar word that we have been singing.
Hosanna! Why are they shouting this word at Jesus? For me, I grew up attending church and Hosanna, to me, was one of those churchy words like Halleluiah! A word of exclamation and something we sang a lot. I didn’t think it actually meant anything except maybe a kind of Yay, God! But it actually means something in Hebrew (who knew?). Do you know what it means? Save us. So the crowd is actually shouting SAVE US because, yes, they see Jesus as this King who has finally come to save them from the oppressive leadership of Rome: high taxes, people taken advantage of, abusive leadership. They’re crying out: Help us! Do something! Because they have waited for so long for someone to do something, for freedom to come. And here, here, surely Jesus will do something, right?
On Palm Sunday, today, we join our voices with the crowd in Jerusalem. We dare to let our own cries of “Save us!” rise up. To let Hosanna become our prayer.
And the key word is “us” in the shouts we offer. Save us. This Lent we have practiced journaling, exercise, fasting, meditation, and lament – ways of hearing the heartbeat of God – that are about ourselves. Today’s final prayer practice shifts the center of gravity of our listening, outside of ourselves. Our practice this week is intercessory prayer. Intercession – a fancy word that simply means to pray for another person.
Intercession shifts our center of gravity from our own needs and bodies and concerns to the needs and concerns of others. It becomes about “us.” Save us.
…I invite you to begin to become of aware of the people in your life who you have been praying for, of those who are in times of need. Just hold that question in the background. The question of who, and for what do you pray.
Into this landscape of prayer for others, I want to close by offering two reorienting pieces of perspective. To help us sink our teeth into what it means to pray for others – that I hope challenge some of our assumptions.
First, is how we see what intercession is. Richard Foster explains what intercession is, in a way that I had never quite put into words. He says this: “If we truly love people, we will desire for them far more than it is within our power to give them, and this will lead us to prayer. Intercession is a way of loving others.” Richard Foster in Prayer: Finding our Heart’s True Home.
Just let that sink it – a way of loving! Have you seen intercession in this way? I read that – that we pray because we love – and I just thought well, yes! Duh! Yet, I wonder if we’ve all made that connection. We pray because we love. Prayer is a way of loving others. Love in action. Yes, this. Save us.
This has been true for me this week, I had a phone call with my friend, Beth, who I hadn’t spoken with for almost two years. We went to school together, I was a bridesmaid in her wedding. She left me a message saying she wanted to share news of changes happening in her life. And when I called her back, she let me know that she’s getting divorce, ending her marriage after 10 years. This dynamic couple – no more. And I have felt the weight this week of her loss, her journey, the pain she has wrestled through. And living as far away from her as I do, there are not a lot of options for how I can support her – I can’t just hang out with her, do life with her, bake her cookies, help her move. But I will tell you, what I have done in the last days, with my own sadness and love for her, I have prayed. I have prayed for her because I love her and I hurt for her.
So first thing: we pray because we love! And when we love others through prayer, what we experience is how intercession pulses with the heartbeat of God.
And this gets into the second thing I want to name about intercession. I wonder, if on any level you might have this understanding of praying for others. We imagine the flow of intercessory prayer as one where we call up God, and God is there to answer the phone, to receive the prayer. We’re on one end, and God is on the other.
But I want to challenge this paradigm to say: this ain’t it at all. Remember last week, as Mary and Martha and their friends were crying in grief at Lazarus’ death, did Jesus stand back and extended his hands, saying, “Yes, I am here to receive your grief and prayers...”. No, what did Jesus do? He cried with them. He was there in the mess, standing with them, crying out in their tears.
So it is for us in our times of prayer for others. The bible is clear that Jesus doesn’t answer the phone. Jesus is actually the one who makes the call with us – standing next to us, or on speaker phone, or he’s the one dialing... However you want to use the metaphor. Or really, there’s just no phone at all. Jesus stands with us in our prayer, he’s there, the source of the love we feel for the one who is hurting, fueling the very prayers we offer. The book of Hebrews calls Jesus our new, great high priest – in a culture where the priests were the ones who stood before God on our behalf, the go-between for God’s people and God, Jesus becomes that great high priest – cancelling out the need for any others to stand between us and God, as Jesus becomes the one who actually stands with us, and cries out for us and with us, for those we love.
So just these two pieces for us today: we pray as a way to love, and that when we pray, Jesus prays with us – not on the other end of the line.
Which is why, when we pray for others, we feel that deep connection with the holy. The heartbeat of God. Jesus is deeply in those moments of prayer for others. Which makes sense because – to be people who follow Jesus, Jesus’ way of love, we will pray for others, because it is one way we love each other. So yes we find Jesus there – or rather, we are found by Jesus there.
Prayer is how I could support Beth this week – because I hurt for her, because I love her, and also because I hope for her. Who in your life – family, friends – is facing a hard time? Who do you love and hurt and hope for? I commend to you: intercession. As Jesus followers, intercessory prayer is one of the greatest tools for love we have in our toolbox. Our prayer lives will always hold the needs of others – because when we love someone, we will desire far more for them than we are able to give them. How true is this as a parent. A spouse. A friend. Especially when those we love face hard times, cancer, depression, unemployment, transition. And for all the ways we just want the best for those we love – that’s why we pray for them.
…So I wonder: what has intercessory prayer looked like in your life? You may have never known that this is the word for it, so, the question we’re really asking is: do you pray for others? When? How? Do you have a list of people in a journal, do you pray in the morning when you wake up? Is it more organic and you pray in the moment when you see the need for it? Do you pray silently on your own? Do you send prayers via text or email? Do you pray out loud in person or on the phone?. …How do you intercess?
Whether this is a common practice for you or not: how might you pray for others, moving forward? Might you reframe what it is and why you do it? Maybe it becomes your response to the weight you carry for others, a tool in your toolbox to express your love and hurt and hope for someone.
Of all the weeks to be people who pray for others, Holy Week is a mighty good one. Together, we cry out “Save us!” leaning into God as we walk through the events of Jesus’ final days – no other week has had such an impact on the course of history and humanity than this one – and so yes, save us, God, indeed.
As has become our practice this Lent, we now shift gears, making room for prayer, for this practice of intercession.