If you have ever taken a preaching course, you were probably, as I was, taught fairly early on that good liturgical preaching is based on the assigned texts that are proclaimed in the liturgy. Preaching a sermon that it unrelated to the texts is not only frowned on, but also actively discouraged. Well, that’s what we all learn in classes about liturgical preaching, but that’s not what I’m going to do today. So I suppose I didn’t learn the lesson well enough.
Today, with apologies to professors of liturgical preaching, I want to think about something which we all do, which we here at the monastery do at least three times a day, and which is a part of our life here that I both love, and that frustrates the “ you know what ” out of me at the same time. Three times a day, in the context of the Eucharist, the Mid Day Office and Compline the community gathers to intercede. It is a wonderful thing that we do, but at the same time I often ask myself, “ What on earth do we think we are doing ?”
As some of you will know, I have just returned from Texas , where for the second year I was a reader of the General Ordination Exams. That experience has prompted me to muse on a few questions that I would put on the exam, given the chance. One of my questions would most likely fall in the liturgy and church music section and would read something like this:
Using the Book of Common Prayer, Bible and hymnal (and the Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist) in an essay of about three pages, develop a coherent theology of intercession.
I don’t know if such a question will ever be asked, but I think it should, because I’m not sure we really know what we are doing when we get to that portion of the liturgy. Time and again the intercessions fall flat, because they sound more like a shopping list, or a dull reading of the phone book.
So what do we think we’re doing? Or, perhaps I should phrase it this way: “ What do I think we are doing? ”
There are for me three images that come to mind when I reflect on the mystery of intercession.
The first comes from the Letter to the Hebrews , where the author of the Letter speaks of the high priesthood of Christ, who has passed through the heavens and who sits now at the right hand of the Father where he “ lives always to make intercession ” (Heb. 7:25) for us. It is there, for me at least, that the ministry of intercession is rooted: in the high priesthood of Christ, who is ascended, who sits at the right hand of the Father, and who ever lives to make intercession.
Intercession is one of the ways in which all of us express our baptismal priesthood. It is one of the ways in which we experience the glories of the Ascension. It is one of the ways in which we take our rightful place of honour, not one-day, or some day, but today, seated at the right hand of God. If we actually believe what we say, baptism incorporates us not simply into the church but more importantly into the body of Christ, and Christ now sits in glory at the right hand of the Father. When we share with Christ in this high priestly ministry of intercession, we do so from a place of glory, from a place of honour, from our place, seated at the right hand of God.
In a few moments, during the intercessions, I want you to claim that place of honour and glory for yourself, and experience your baptismal priesthood as a member of the body of Christ.
Another image of intercession for me comes from the Gospel According to Mark where four friends carry a paralyzed man to Jesus. The part that always moves me is where Mark tells us that “ when Jesus saw their faith ” (Mk. 2:5) he healed the man. This story for me is not only about healing and forgiveness, but also about intercession. When we intercede for someone or someplace we do so like those four friends carrying the paralyzed man, and Jesus, seeing our faith , responds. It wasn’t the faith of the man that moved Jesus to act; it was the faith of the friends. Intercession then is about faith, our faith. But it is also about love, our love. We carry in our hearts people and places that we love, and lay them before the Lord, who acts in response to our faith and love.
Intercession is about love, and leaning to love. Father Benson in our Rule reminds us that:
in praying for others we learn really and truly to love them. As we approach God on their behalf we carry the thought of them into the very being of eternal Love, and as we go into the being of him who is eternal Love, so we learn to love whatever we take with us there. (Chapter 25: The Practice of Intercession)
Intercession is about love that is both expressed and learnt. We express our love for another when we pray for them, and we learn to love them even more, even our enemies.
But the love we express in our intercessions is not a passive love. Nor is it reminding God to pay attention to something about which God is ignorant. For our intercession does not call down the divine presence to come to a place where we have seen a need, for the Christ who fills all things is already in that place. It is his Spirit who calls us to join him there by offering our love in intercessory prayer and action, to be used by God for healing and transformation. (Chapter 24: The Mystery of Intercession)
Our Rule teaches us that intercession is a call to love and action, not just by God, but also by us.
In a few moments, during the intercessions, I want you to think of yourself as one of those four friends, carrying in your heart those whom you would lay before the Lord. I want you to hear the gospel writer say about you: “ Jesus, seeing your faith, responded ” and I want you to think what more you can or might do to be an agent of God’s healing and transformation.
Finally, I cannot help but think of the widow in Luke’s gospel who kept appearing before the judge of a certain city, saying, “ grant me justice against my opponent ” (Lk. 18: 3) It is not, I want to stress, that God is like the unjust judge ignoring our cries, but that sometimes “we must suffer the pain of seeing no visible result to our prayer” . (Chapter 24: The Mystery of Intercession) Such frustration and disappointment did not stop the widow, nor did it stop those of us who prayed for decades for the end of apartheid in South Africa . If our prayer is truly an expression of our love we will want to pray, no matter the cost or the time, for every “ offering of love will bear fruit ”, ” (Chapter 24: The Mystery of Intercession) perhaps not today, but certainly tomorrow.
In a few moments, during the intercessions, I want you to lay before God those situations that seem most hopeless, and to ask for the companionship of the importuning widow who finally gained justice because of her perseverance. Pray then, not just for the situation, but also for the grace of patience and perseverance so that your own sense of “frustration [does not] wear down the trust that sustains [your] waiting on God”. (Chapter 24: The Mystery of Intercession)
So what then are we doing when we intercede? We are I think, claiming our rightful place at the right hand of the Father, where we sit with the ascended Christ and “intercede for the saints, according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:27) It is about the transforming and healing nature of love, for intercession is about the expression of our love and our willingness to share in the transformation and healing of the world that is the will of God. And it is about patience and perseverance. Intercession, like other kinds of work requires constancy but it also requires us to become “willing fellow-workers with God “who uses our love, acting in intercession, to further the reconciliation of all things in Christ”. ” (Chapter 24: The Mystery of Intercession)
This is the work of intercession and this is the work to which we were commissioned when we were baptized and instructed to “confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection and share … in his eternal priesthood”. (BCP page 308)
Now for those who wrote the GOE’s this year, I’ll just say this: The purpose of the last question was not to see if you would anoint the dog, but rather if you could make the connection between the dying dog, and the man’s continuing grief over the death of his wife. The man’s grief is being manifested in his concern about the dog. If you anointed the dog, but missed the connection to the dead wife, you missed the point of the question. For those of you who didn’t write the GOE’s this year, ask someone who did to explain the question to you.
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