Sermon for Sunday, October 30, 2022 || Proper 26C || 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
The last three Sundays, I stumbled my way into a sermon series on prayer. Three weeks ago, we talked about prayers of thanksgiving shaping our lives. Two weeks ago, we talked about prayer as a response to God’s constant invitations. And last week, we talked about making sure God is the subject of our prayers and not our own egos. Which brings me to today. Today we’re going to talk about a specific type of prayer – intercessory prayer. So, with four Sundays in a row all on one topic, I’ve decided to call this month my “Accidental Sermon Series About Prayer.”
Prayer comes in many forms and expressions, and intercessory prayer is arguably the one that people have in mind when they think of prayer in general. Intercessory prayer is the practice of bringing the needs of others before God. (Not our own needs; that’s a different category of prayer called petition. Humans do love to categorize things, don’t we?) Intercession is, to put it simply, praying for other people. In our second reading today, Paul includes an intercessory prayer in the opening of his letter to the church in Thessalonica: “We always pray for you,” Paul writes, “asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Now, before I go any further, I need to cut out one specific kind of intercession from this discussion that I heard a lot growing up in Alabama. It sounds like a prayer, but it’s really just a sign of disapproval disguised as a prayer. It happens when someone learns something about you that they don’t approve of and then says (solemnly and with great concern), “I’ll pray for you.” This isn’t a good faith intercession. It’s the prayer equivalent of someone saying, “Well, bless your heart.”
Okay, with that out of the way, let’s talk about true intercessory prayer and why it is important for our lives of faith and our relationships. The first thing people usually ask me about intercessory prayer is why it works sometimes and not other times. Why do some people have whole hosts praying for them and then recover from a life-threatening illness, while others don’t? And for that matter, why should we pray for others at all? Doesn’t God already know the needs of our friend we are praying for?
Both of these questions are entirely valid, and I think they both miss the reason that intercessory prayer is so important to our faith. To think that we could somehow “sway God” by getting enough people praying for someone reduces our contact with God to a numbers game. We will be tempted to think that the more people praying, the more responsive God will be. But we know from the parable of the lost sheep that sheer numbers don’t matter to God. The Good Shepherd leaves the 99 and seeks for the one who is lost. God is already present in all our joys and all our sufferings. God can’t get more present based on the volume of pray-ers.
But this reality of God’s constant presence leads to the second question. Why pray for others at all if God already knows what’s up? If our goal isn’t to sway God to act, then why pray?
I need a little bit of a wider lens to tackle this question, so let’s zoom out for a minute. Each of us is connected to everyone else through the eternal love of God. Imagine these little gold threads unspooling from our hearts and tethering us to the hearts of literally everyone and everything God has made. That is the reality of the triune God, who made All-There-Is to the specifications of the blueprints of love. Okay, so we’re all connected through the love of God. You with me?
Intercessory prayer is the action we take in order to step more consciously into this reality of the connecting love of God. By praying for someone else, we actively participate in the deep reality of creation, a reality built upon the foundation of God’s connecting love. People have told me time and again – and I’ve experienced it myself – that they felt held by God in the midst of whatever challenge they were facing. Would they have felt this if others were not actively praying for them? Maybe. I hope so. I believe God holds them in the palm of God’s hand no matter what. But sometimes, especially in the midst of hardship, we humans need some more tangible evidence of God’s presence – that’s what the sacraments are for. And so feeling this abiding sense of being held by God happens with greater ease when we know others are praying for us.
God uses us, the intercessors, as the very evidence of God’s presence. Through some mysterious process of divine love, God turns us into our prayers. We become even more connected to the one we are praying for, and the love of God grows. Intercessory prayer, then, both supports the person going through the hardship AND intercessory prayer turns us – the pray-ers – outward, away from our selfishness so that we more actively seek the face of God in the other.
So the next time someone asks you for your prayers, what they’re really saying is this: “I’m scared right now. I don’t know how I’m going to face what’s coming. And I’m having trouble finding God in all of this. Will you help me?”
By saying “yes,” and by praying that intercessory prayer, you are allowing God to deputize you as a tangible sign of God’s love. In that moment, you are an angel – a messenger of God reminding someone of God’s eternal presence. That’s the power of intercessory prayer. We bear witness to God’s promise that nothing in all of creation – not even death – will be able to separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord.