May 21, 2013

While You Are Working


Text: John 17:20a: “Jesus prayed for his disciples...”

This past thursday, the feast of the Ascension, I accepted an invitation to preach downtown at the Church of the Advent in Boston. If you’ve never been there, it’s a little hard to describe what it’s like. We often say that there’s quite a range of worship styles in the Episcopal Church, but the Church of the Advent has a kind of exclusive lease on one end of the spectrum. It’s very...complicated. It’s Anglo-Catholic, and perhaps more accurately it’s Anglo-pre-Vatican-II Catholic. There’s lots of incense, lots of genuflecting, lots of people in cassocks, and basically lots of things we never would imagine doing at Saint John’s

When you come as a guest to preach they sort of know you’ll be a danger to yourself, and so they assign the verger to you. A verger is a man in a gown with a stick, and this very kind man helps you know where you’re supposed to go and where you’re supposed to be at all times. He was incredibly helpful and patient as I stumbled through the formality of a two-hour-long solemn mass, and trust me when I tell you that it wasn’t just because I was preaching that it went so long.

Churches, like people, get reputations, and the only thing worse than having a reputation, I suppose, is not having one. The people of the Church of the Advent know exactly what the reputation of that place is, and one result of it is that people come from miles around just to be part of the Sunday-morning parish. My verger commutes from Brockton; other people I met come from Connecticut or Vermont.

But the thing that is really the most astonishing about the Church of the Advent has nothing to do with the style of the liturgy. Instead it’s the fact that every day in that church there are at least three services: Morning Prayer at 9:00 o’clock, the Eucharist at 12:15, and Evening Prayer at 5:30. Every day. On Sundays and Wednesdays they have four services. So by my count there are twenty-three services held in that church every week; and that doesn’t include weddings or funerals.

Now, granted, they are a much larger congregation than we are; yet, as I said, many of those folks come for Sundays from miles away. They are close to downtown, in Beacon Hill, so they are in a pretty densely populated place. And they have four clergy on staff.

Still—it’s a pretty amazing exercise of sheer faith. In a lot of ways it’s the ideal that Thomas Cranmer had in mind when he assembled the very first Book of Common prayer; the idea was to recreate something like the experience of the monastery, with its daily cycle of services, in the local parish church. The idea of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer was to make the church available every day as people went off to work and came home at the end of day.

And in fact monasteries still observe this routine of a number of services every day. Just yesterday a little group of us from Saint John’s went off early in the morning to take part in the Eucharist service at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, the monastery of which our bishop is a monk over in Cambridge. I counted it up; over at the monastery they have twenty-seven services in a typical week. And they take one whole day off, believe it or not. Our friends in the convents of Saint Anne and Saint Margaret are doing the same thing.

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There is something about the witness of these places that is profoundly comforting. They keep to this cycle of daily worship and prayer day in and day out, rain or shine, winter or summer. It’s hard enough for us to get to church once a week; there are so many other claims laid on us. And yet somewhere, every day, prayers are being offered and there is a church doing the divine service of rendering worship to God.

The bookend to that, or maybe the echo, is found in the gospel we heard this morning. Today we come to the end of the four-chapter-long farewell discourse in Saint John’s gospel, the long, long address Jesus gives to the disciples around the table at the Last Supper. This last part of it, the seventeenth chapter, is really an extended prayer. The scholars call it the “great priestly prayer” of Jesus. Jesus prays for himself, for his disciples, and for unity among those who believe in him.

But the striking idea in it, if you think about it, is that—if you skip a lot of steps and come right to the end of the story—what we get in the gospel reading is God praying for us. This seems a little turned around, no? I mean, the whole idea of church is that we’re supposed to be here thinking about God, right? Praying to God, making ourselves open to God’s will for us. And here, in this story, is a sort of odd realization: God is praying for us, too.

We’ll get into this a little more in two weeks’ time, when we all go over to Trinity Church for the Sunday morning service on the feast of the Trinity. The topic on that day is the idea that God isn’t a thing, or a person, but essentially a relationship, an eternal relationship of prayer between the different expressions of God.

For now it’s enough just to chew on this for a moment: This isn’t just about a story about a conversation between a group of guys sharing a meal in Jerusalem a few years ago. Jesus prays not just for them then, but for us now—at every moment of every day, not just when we’re in church. In fact that’s sort of the job description  for Jesus. And one of the ways in which that happens is that the Body of Christ, the church, is always praying.

So while we’re doing the work of our lives, while we’re doing our homework and commuting to the office and working on next year’s prices, and interviewing a client, and developing a grant proposal, and teaching a class, and tending the garden, even while we are playing video games, or doing whatever else it is we need to be doing—our lives are being sustained, held from one moment to the next, by God praying for us.

Somehow that makes more sense to me when I add to it the realization that in the cycles of daily prayer in places like monasteries and convents and the Church of the Advent and even places like ours on Sunday morning, every minute of every hour of every day there is somewhere some community offering prayer on our behalf, on the world’s behalf, on behalf of those of us who have at least in that moment have so much on our minds that we have lost track of our souls.

While we are working, while we are worrying, while we are celebrating or arguing or planning or sleeping, we are being prayed for. Prayed for by God, and prayed for by someone somewhere in the church.

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Now, this may feel a little like a gentle reprimand that we should be having more services. Believe me when I tell you that Saint John’s won’t anytime soon be hosting twenty-three services a month. We have an equal part in this, but it’s a different part.

Because in the end what this all comes down to is the question of our vocation. Some people have a vocation of being monks and nuns. Some people have a vocation of being deeply devoted to the arts of liturgy. All of that is done, when it is done for the purpose for which it was given, to glorify God—and that is the whole point of this whole long discourse of Jesus.

We in this community have a different vocation. Whether we are researchers or teachers, students or doctors or entrepreneurs or lawyers or musicians or artists, we have work to do in the world. And whether you know it or not, it is work God needs done.

If that work becomes our whole world, then our work has become our God—and the thing we do here on Sunday morning is simply an extra we try to make time for, one more thing on a busy plate.

But if we could see our work differently—if we could see it as our vocation, whatever it is, our response to God’s goodness towards us and God’s gifts in us—then our working lives become different kind of offering the same worship, the same praise, to God.

The difference between one and the other is a difference of purpose. It’s a difference in how you understand the purpose of whatever the work is you do. If the purpose is your fulfillment and advancement and greater fame, then God may be merciful to you in helping you do it, but you’ll be working for a cause no greater than yourself.

But if we understand your purpose in our work, whatever it is, to be an offering of prayer back to the God who made that work possible in us, then we are doing the work of the church no matter what we are doing, or where we are doing it.

While we are working, God is praying for us. While we are working, the church is praying for us. We, too, can do our part when we make our work our prayer, hour after hour, day after day—the better to move God’s work forward in the world. Amen.