“Prayer as trust in the Spirit,” a sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham

Lent 5, Year B

March 21, 2021

John 12:20-33

On a walk in the forest behind our house…a birds nest

Prayer as Trust in the Spirit

Today is the Fifth Sunday in Lent, and, as we look toward beginning Holy Week with Palm Sunday next Sunday, this is the last in this particular sermon series on prayer.  Looking back at the prior weeks, we have seen reflections on prayer in the wilderness, praying with our bodies, prayer in times of suffering, prayer as our entire lives, and prayer that reveals.  Each of these reflections have challenged me to stretch my understanding of prayer in relation to the expansiveness of God’s grace–especially in these days that have been so trying for us all.

Our circumstances have changed so quickly even in these past five weeks.  For that matter they changed enormously just last week alone, when we went from thinking we may go back to indoor worship perhaps in May or June to suddenly learning that we could gather in some capacity beginning on Palm Sunday.  This past year has constantly challenged us to be nimble.  While there is a fatigue that has come with constant updates and shifts in schedules and frameworks, there have also been enormous opportunities for grace and compassion.  

I am always learning that I am called to respond to the challenges and opportunities that we encounter, but I am centered in my practice of prayer that is aware of God’s presence in my life.  The degree to which I can faithfully respond is in direct proportion to my centeredness and awareness of God’s presence.

So, today I will focus on the way that prayer is trusting in the Spirit’s movement in our lives.  Prayer as a deep, abiding trust calls us to remember that while we will face challenges in this world, we are rooted in God’s compassionate presence that, at its heart, calls us together as a community.  Such togetherness, or interdependence, is a hallmark of the Spirit’s movement.

We catch a glimpse of this dynamic today in the Gospel.  Here we have this powerful moment when “some Greeks” come to the festival and say, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  Now, this already tells you something important: they are identified as Greeks, so we know from the start that the love and healing power of Jesus is reaching across cultural and religious lines.  The immediate circle of the disciples still exists, but the call of Christ extends far beyond that.  More and more are being welcomed and brought together.  

Jesus then begins this deep and powerful reflection.   It almost seems out of scale to Greeks’ request to see him.  

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

The text says that the crowd thought the voice was thunder, which is the Gospel writer, John’s, way of saying that there are some there whose ears–or spiritual hearts–aren’t tuned to the frequency of Jesus’ particular message.  To those who were able to hear, Jesus tells them:

This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.  

And we come to this image that stirs up so much in my soul: when I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself, Jesus says.  

See, it is the Spirit that draws us together.  Like the words of that great hymn say:

Draw us in the Spirit’s tether,

for when humbly in thy name,

two or three are met together,

thou art in the midst of them.

Let me come at it this way.  

One of the lessons I am learning these days is that we need to ask ourselves if we think that “God” is just a good idea, a good framework for making sense of things in this world, or even some sort of memorabilia or artifact.  Even just the focus of a set of habits that, while powerful, aren’t truly anchored in our hearts.  Do we approach God just like another idea or cultural framework?  Or do we, to use an image a wise teacher once gave to me, trust in the “movement of the living Spirit?”  

God is not just some historical artifact, or a sentimental focus, or a rational framework to make sense of the world.  “God” is, really, just a word that we use in English that points to this living reality that gives rise to all things, the source of creation that entered into creation and that continues to move within all creation–drawing all into a loving and healing embrace.  Do we believe this is true?

Jesus said “And when I am lifted up I will draw all the world to myself,” and that process, that living reality, is still taking place.  Here and now, in every moment of our lives.  We are being drawn together, and our practice of prayer calls us to trust in the living movement of the Spirit that is breathing in us all–breathing in all life.  

God is not just an idea.  God is real.  God is the deepest essence of reality itself.  

In this drawing together, it is important to remember that we are drawn together in our distinctiveness, with our particular gifts and strengths.  As we are drawn together, brought together and made aware of our interdependence, we are not reduced down to some least common denominator.  We are not watered down, as it were; rather, the mystery of the Spirit’s movement is that we are brought together in our particular incarnations and are made whole, made fully ourselves, together.

I am convicted of this truth today as I grieve over violence toward Asian Americans and women.  As I wrestle with my own growing awareness of racial injustice–a reality that friends and even my own family teach me.  As I listen to what other denominations say about marriage and the limits of what they feel is right and how it differs from what I have experienced with friends and family.  As I listen to stories of human beings travelling long distances to find help in new lands.   As I pay attention to the way we abuse the resources of the planet we all share.  

On one hand, there is a narrative that so much divides us.  There is so much tension, so much anger and grief.  We have much work to do to live more fully into God’s vision of the Kingdom.  How can we live together?  Because, until we share in this shift in consciousness, until we live out of this awareness of our union, we will continue to experience suffering.

I am reminded that the point of life is not just to get what we each want; rather, the point of life is to live faithfully so that we can become who God means for us to be.  In our particularities, with our distinctive gifts and strengths.  Together, side by side.

I keep looking at that image we have for today, with Jesus saying, “when I am lifted up, I will draw all the world to myself,” and I realize that my struggle with this image is that I place a limit on just how big God’s hands are.  My limited view of grace–my spiritual myopia–leads me to believe that I have to fight for space in God’s embrace. 

Spiritual myopia leads quickly to fear, and as Master Yoda reminds us “fear leads to anger and anger leads to hate.  And hate leads to suffering.” There is so much suffering right now.  Such a mistrust in the Spirit’s power leads us to dehumanize others, and this dehumanization lies at the absolute heart of our struggle.  It always has, honestly.  There has always been a tendency in us humans, in times of fear, to dehumanize someone else so that, in a moment of illusory power, we feel more in control.    

I think of the insights of Cheryl Kelley’s class on spiritual growth and development, and the way we become more aware of the gifts of others as we give thanks and accept our own giftedness.  Complimentary strengths help nurture the formation of a Christian community.  When we recognize God’s presence in someone else, our spiritual myopia is corrected and our self-imposed limits on God’s grace begin to fall away.  

Jesus said, “when I am lifted up, I will draw the whole world to myself.”  I think that is a powerful image to meditate on, with Jesus being lifted up and we all being brought together through the Spirit’s movement.  

Draw us in the Spirit’s tether,

for when humbly in thy name,

two or three are met together,

thou art in the midst of them.

2 thoughts on ““Prayer as trust in the Spirit,” a sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Add yours

  1. This post will take a week of contemplation. It is filled with the Wisdom that I love to hear. In our Centering Prayer circle this week, we contemplated Eckhart’s “God is isness”.
    “God is the deepest essence of reality itself.” Essence, Isness helps me focus away from an image and into the heart. Thank you for this beautiful sermon, and for bringing spirituality to the context of our daily lives and challenges that we are experiencing today,
    In Light,
    Sally Pamplin

    Like

    1. Sally, I saw your note. Thank you…but more than that, thank you for continuing to dig deep and reflect on God’s presence in all of life!

      Like

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