On the Mystery and Practice of Intercession – Br. James Koester
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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The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.
The idea of praying for myself, that I am unable to pray well is interesting. I had given up on prayer for a particular person in my family, saying that I need not suffer their abuse any longer, so I would “let it go”. (How long, O Lord, How long?)
Now, to think that I should pray for myself (selfish?) is a novel idea. It might make me re-think my whole process, to not give up on the situation (it has been long-standing, 30 years), so to not give up on God either, and then not give up on myself, but to pray for myself. . . . . That is a new idea! I’d better start “re-thinking”!
I am reminded of the times when I have heard someone weep and say,
“I have wasted my life.”
This written piece discussing the place gifted to humanity beside Christ,
assures all who love God,
that no life is ever wasted;
if only just a moment is spent,
in simple prayer to God.
I am privileged to be an intercessor for my church, your words have given me insight into how I should be leading the intercessions. Thank you,
Well said! The Christian life begins with us being seated at the right hand of God with Christ. It is pure gift, not a life long achievement. Our life is to share His intercessions for all.
Thank you. I appreciate your frustration about intercession, which reflects my consumerist perceptions that it’s either “meddling someone else’s prayer” or some kind of noisy echo chamber. I get the dead dog projection in writing, but would likely be clueless in real life. So intercession to me isn’t about getting it, but rather about showing up. I worship and do many things not because I get it but need it without knowing what “it” is. I can do the same through intercession, carrying an emotionally or otherwise paralyzed friend not to make a difference but because it can make a difference. Isn’t that what Jesus ministry is about, to set the prisoners free and to get the paralyzed to walk again?
Also see the end of Job. God restored Job “when he prayed for his friends.”
In my adult life I have been comfortable praying extemporaneously but nothing I have read makes intercession more integral and sacred. The images are powerful and will remain with me . Thank you
Always interesting to return to these sermons after some time, and to have yet another response to some aspect of them.
This AM I found myself praying in intercession for a part of my self that has felt discouraged and unwanted, for the courage and continued faith to keep trying to do the work I feel I’ve been given to do.
Thinking of some part of oneself objectively as “another person” to pray for was an unexpected approach, which felt right and loving and integrated.
One would want to do this carefully, of course, not splitting off a part of one’s own personality too deeply!
But the will to love and care for integrated, yet distinct parts of oneself seems consistent with having the will to do so for others, perhaps always needs to be a part of our intercessions, to pray for those parts of ourselves with which we are incompletely familiar or comfortable as well as those parts which are growing, unsure, or afraid.
There’s probably something in the theology/psychology of gestalt about it…
This was the best explanation of intercessory prayer I have ever heard! (61 years old and a life long Episcopalian) Thank you!
Thank you so much. I have often wondered why intercession is important. Now I realize it’s significance and richness in my prayer life. After practicing intercession this way I feel much more connected to God and those I pray for. I also feel I have actively, not passively, participated in the act of love. I would, however, like to know the book that Br. Koester references in his sermon. I would like to read on this subject more.
Sometimes intercessory prayer can become more rote than intentional and it can also be frustrating. “Are you there, God? Are you listening? Are you responding?” Thank you for giving us three ways in which to be in intercessory prayer and for reminding us that God isn’t necessarily in the business of instant gratification.
What was the question about the dying dog?
Praying from within Christ. What a vantage point!
My first grade teacher, S St Joan, told us we could talk to God about anything we wanted to. That was back in 1952. So there was teaching.
I laugh when I realize all she and other nuns taught that would have made priests and the hierarchy uncomfortable had they known. Yet it was these lessons on praying, compassion, and Jesus that became the bedrock of my faith. Not the Baltimore Catechism.
I believe that children should be taught to converse with God all of the time. Having children lead prayers in Church School sometimes leads to lists of pets (I’m not sure about your exam dog), but it starts bringing their hearts to God.
Muy bueno los comentarios acerca de la reflexión. Creo que la clave es esa la oración, pero está solo puede existir si hay una “Relación” de amistad permanente con Jesús. La clave “Amistad” del Apóstol Juan es la llave y la manera de que pudiéramos mantener una “Relación intima” es decir de la interioridad. Esto trae como consecuencia que al rezar (orar) pedir la Intersección de Jesús ante nuestros problemas , sea Cristo quien lo haga por nosotros mismos. Bendiciones Pablo.
Very good comments about reflection. I think the key is that prayer, but it can only exist if there is a “Relationship” lifelong friendship with Jesus. The key “Amistad” the Apostle John is the key and the way we could keep an “intimate relationship” is of interiority. This results in that the daven (pray) Intercession ask Jesus to our problems, but Christ who do it for ourselves. Blessings Paul.
Dear Brother James,
A member of our Healing Team at Epiphany Parish, Winchester shared this with us. Thank you. I am inspired by it. I have to confess that I don’t think I have ever felt the experience of sitting at the right hand of the Father with the Ascended Christ in Paradise. I sure wish I had! But when I am at the prayer station praying with someone, I certainly am aware that Christ is right there too with us praying. And I feel as if the whole interaction is between the other two and I am just the one whose voice and hands and heart are needed for the conversation.
The expression of free-standing, unscripted, personally motivated prayer may be insufficiently developed in Anglican teaching and pastoral preaching. A reticence seems to exist, about telling people how to live their faith in this area–as if they’re supposed to already know and it’s an insult to suggest they need to be taught–that can result in a too-heavy reliance on written prayers, it seems to me. One need not become a “ranter” to pray aloud in public, either.
I was teaching a workshop in an Anglican church once when I said, as I usually do, “Let’s start with a prayer,” and proceeded to ask God to bless our work, in my own words.
A bit later on, we were discussing how the work of the performative arts could be prayerful work in the liturgical setting, and half of the participants said they were trying to understand how one could pray without knowing which prayer to use in the BCP.
I was a bit surprised, and said, “Well, you don’t have to know the prayers in the BCP to be able to talk to God, you can just say what you want,” to which one of them replied, “Oh, I’d never do that, what if I got it wrong? We were never taught what to say.”
So we stopped and did the classical analysis of the 5 parts of the Lord’s Prayer, and I referred them to the little book on Prayer by then-Bishop John Coburn (https://www.amazon.com/personal-religion-Laymans-theological-library/dp/B0000CMIOA).
We then discussed having each person pray at the beginning of the next 5 workshop meetings that were to come, and reading a section of Bp. Coburn’s book each week as well.
Later they said no-one in their childhood or early adulthood had ever encouraged them to pray extemporaneously, and that the focus on that idea helped them to see their faith in a more personal way.
So, wonderful as the wordings in the BCP can be, they need to be joined with personal expressions of prayer….
This was a while ago, so perhaps things have changed. But it might also be good for those taking the GOEs to learn to convey ‘permission’ to others (and offer them some sort of introductory suggestions) to be able pray from their hearts as well as from a book.