Prayer Grounds and Sustains Us

The Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan preaches at Sunday ServicesThe Rev. Alanna Sullivan, Associate Minister and Director of Administration, the Memorial Church. File Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.



By the Rev. Alanna C, Sullivan
Associate Minister and Director of Administration 
The Memorial Church of Harvard University

(The following is a transcript from the service audio)

Let us pray. May the words in my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight, oh God, our rock and redeemer. Amen. Earlier this week, Reverend Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches and friend of the Memorial Church, found herself waiting in line for a COVID-19 test after her spouse tested positive. Everett live tweeted her experience of waiting almost three and a half hours, two of which were outside. It was 26 degrees and really felt about 18.

Really, really hard for so many people. We were standing with some elders and seniors, standing with a young mom and her five year old. Laura tells us that some people ended up leaving because they could not stay. And she did share some small moments of grace. Everett found some hand warmers in her car that she shared with women around her. And unfortunately, Reverend Everett's experience is not unique. She's one of millions around the country who have experienced difficulty getting a COVID-19 test recently and have had to wait hours with an expectant crowd.

And sadly, but not unsurprisingly, it has been exceptionally harder for communities of color and those living in poorer neighborhoods to get adequate access to testing. Everett told a local reporter that there is a need for COVID-19 testing equity, along with more leadership and compassion. In her words, "For the who are in elected office and whose credentials have been about public infrastructure, healthcare, and efficiency in government, I expect you to say, 'I hear your pain. I struggle with you. ' And here's how I'm going to respond.

We need elected officials to respond in ways that are just inequitable." Our gospel lesson for today, read so beautifully by Louisa Rosano, details the baptism of Jesus. This story begins with an expectant crowd. In fact, it is one of the few details that Luke shares about Jesus' baptism. They have come to be baptized by John. Perhaps at a moment like this, it might be easier for us to imagine what it could be like standing in the crowd. Some of us frustrated, not knowing what's going on. Some too sick to stand. Others ornery from weary limbs and tired feet.

Others being pulled away because someone needs us at home. Some sharing our food with others, all asking for help, all needing some relief, all looking for something or someone to lead us out of our miserable circumstances, all hoping to be healed, all searching for a piece of good news. And it is here that we find Jesus waiting in line with everyone else searching for God, wanting to know and feel what God's love and mercy are like. Here, our lectionary actually eliminates a few verses from our gospel lesson.

These verses reveal Herod imprisons John before Jesus' baptism. It's sobering, but sadly familiar news. Rulers so often violently resist those who challenge their authority. There's a personal cost to define corruption and tyranny. Yet amidst deprivation and brokenness and despair, Jesus is baptized and praised. It is here that the spirit reveals itself and God shares these life-giving words. "You are my child, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased." Hear it again. "You are my child, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

Luke shares little about what happens at Jesus' baptism, which means we should pay all the more attention to this blessing. The power of Jesus' baptism comes from his posture of prayer. What begins here in baptism persists through prayer, through Jesus' life and ministry. The spirit continues to reveal itself to Jesus through prayer, and Luke reveals that time and time again, Jesus turns to prayer when he reaches a juncture, before he calls the disciples, before the disciples asked Jesus who he is at his transfiguration, before teaching the disciples how to pray themselves on the night of his arrest, as he's dying.

Prayer is what grounds and sustains Jesus. Nowadays, there's been pushback about the relevancy of prayer. With the waves of hatred and bigotry and violence, the phrase "you are in my thoughts and prayers" no longer has a buoying effect. In fact, it can even weigh us down. When used time and time again without any alteration, prayer can begin to sound glib, contrite, even offensive. If you keep your thoughts to yourself and your prayers in your heart, what good are they? As Jesus demonstrates with his own prayer practice, it must guide how we live in the world.

Prayer becomes how the Holy Spirit implants itself within our hearts so that our lives may be our fruit. In the end, it's not just about seeking justice, but doing justice, not just hoping for peace, but making peace, not just saying I love you, but embodying that love. Prayer is not always merely the precursor to action. Sometimes action is the prayer. And if you are not sure where to begin with prayer, perhaps start with the very blessing that God bestows upon Jesus. God, may I remember that I am your beloved, with whom you are well pleased.

This may feel awkward to say at first, but friends, we all need to know that we are loved and be reminded of our own innate goodness. Preacher Susan Sparks puts it this way. Perhaps more powerful than the words themselves is their timing. The spirit offered this blessing to Jesus before he had done anything. The words were bestowed on him not for what he had done, but for who he was, a beloved child of God. And it is not just Jesus. Each of us is born with the same intrinsic belovedness.

As Genesis teaches us, God created humankind in God's image and God declared new human life very good. Yet the farther we get from our birth, the easier it is to forget that we are a blessing from God. Yet God's blessing of our belovedness never goes away. It just gets harder to hear when it gets drowned out by other voices of criticism, fear, and pain. And what's more, when we lose touch with our own belovedness, it becomes harder to find it in others. If we fail to recognize God's divine image within ourselves, how are we to recognize it in others?

You are my child, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased. These are the words that changed Jesus' life. In the difficult days ahead, may we hold fast to them in our prayer, so that we may remember our own belovedness and in turn recognize it in others. There is not a child, neighbor, stranger, even enemy who does not need to hear this more often and know its truth more fully. Amen.


See also: Sermon