by Rev. Joseph Connolly
“We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you, remember you, in our prayers, constantly. We call to mind before our God and Creator how you are proving your faith by your actions and labor in love, showing steadfastness, constancy of hope, in our Savior, Jesus, the Christ.” — 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3.
I have probably mentioned this hundreds of times from the pulpit. The denominational tradition of my family, my faith background, is Roman Catholic. Or as I like to say, with a name like Joseph Francis Connolly, Jr., that is hard to hide.
And indeed, my mother spent time in the convent but left before taking her final vows. My father taught in one Roman Catholic High School— a High School run by the Jesuits at that— for his entire working career. And I am, obviously, a pastor.
Jews in the New Testament era— perhaps Jews in the city of Thessalonika— would have labeled someone involved in seeking God, as members of my family have been and are doing now, God seekers. You see, they understood even though a person might not be Jewish, some people take God seriously. The way they saw things is, if you take God seriously, you should be taken seriously.
Back to my family— for many years we lived in a house diagonally across the street from our local parish church, Saint Thomas the Apostle. That made going to Mass on Sunday an easy task. In my house it was often said if you fall out of bed and then take two steps you’re at the front door of the church.
As was true of nearly any inner city church in those days, on a Sunday the Mass schedule started at 7:00 a.m. Then there was one Mass every hour on the hour through 11:00 a.m., that last one being a so called “High Mass” with a choir singing parts of the Mass and the priest waving a thurible, that strange looking pot with burning coal which meant at this Mass the smell of incense permeated the chancel and wafted out into the nave.
For reasons too complex to bother to explain, it seemed most weeks in my family each of the seven of us who lived in that house choose to attend a different mass. My mother always attended the High Mass at 11:00 a.m. because she sang in the choir.
As an early riser, she was very aware of when each of us went out the door and took those two steps across the street to attend one of the Masses. And, when any of us would head out the door toward the church, she would say the same thing to each of us: “Say one for me.”
Effectively, she asked each of us to say a prayer for her as we attended Mass. While, theologically, I would argue each of us and all of us stands in the need of prayer, I would also argue that among the rag-tag group known as the Connolly family my mother was the one least in need of prayer. Still she asked.
She, in fact, said “Say one for me” to us so often that this phrase stuck in the memory of her three children permanently. Therefore when she died, we decided to put that saying on her gravestone. “Say one for me.” (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the First Letter to the Church in a City known in New Testament times and still known today as Thessalonika. “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you, remember you, in our prayers, constantly. We call to mind before our God and Creator how you are proving your faith by your actions and labor in love, showing steadfastness, constancy of hope, in our Savior, Jesus, the Christ.” (Slight pause.)
I need you to look at the structure of what Paul does in this reading. First, Paul offers thanks. Thanks for who? Thanks for the people of the church, the community of faith gathered, in the City of Thessalonika.
As an aside, we moderns do not get this: all of these churches to whom Paul writes were small. Scholars doubt they would have numbered more than 50 people.
Next, Paul directly says those in that small church at Thessalonika are mentioned, remembered, held in prayer constantly by the Apostle. Then Paul praises them for their attitude, their hope, about the reality of God and Christ.
Paul acknowledges what they are doing by their example is through the movement of the Spirit. And because they are open to the Spirit, it is a model to all believers. Their faith has become known and celebrated everywhere. (Slight pause.)
I want to say two things about that summary. First, we have an example of how each of us, in the context of faith, should constantly relate to those around us.
Second, look at where Paul starts. When I say look at where Paul starts, you need to realize after a standard introductory sentence, Paul starts by offering prayer for the members of the Church in Thessalonika. “Paul effectively says— people of Thessalonika— let me say one for you.” (Slight pause.)
Now, something which has been said to me over and over again in my twenty plus years as a Pastor is a request that I pray for someone. And yes, I do honor those requests.
But that very inquiry, asking me to pray for someone, raises an obvious question. Do I have some kind of special relationship with God which might make any prayer I offer more valid than anyone else who is here today who prays?
The short answer is ‘no.’ I do not have any kind of singular conduit to God. Ordination did not somehow give me a special or secret knowledge about how to pray. And there is no question about this. We all need to follow Paul’s example and pray for one another. (Slight pause.)
It is my perception that what I am about to say is not addressed often enough. There are techniques, ways of praying, which can be taught and learned. These will not make payer any more effective. But they can offer ways for individuals to feel more comfortable praying and help the person for whom the prayer is being offered more comfortable.
Briefly, here are three things any of us can do. First, if you agree to pray with another person, listen carefully to the request and try to discern not just what is verbalized but the emotional depth of the request. Doing this will often offer guidance about what might be placed before God in prayer.
Next, if you are praying one on one with another person, offering prayer while holding hands or just looking into one another’s eyes can add a tactile or visual aspect to prayer. This empowers a real sense of connection with the other person.
Another technique is, as a prayer is being offered, even if the person is with you, close your eyes and visualize the person. Think about the person. Many say doing this can bring both the prayer and the person for whom the prayer is being offered into sharper focus.
All of which brings me back to my Mother. Yes, she may have been the one in our family who was least in need of prayer. But she also understood, as did Paul, that the first thing we need to do with one another and for one another is pray.
And so, we need to pray for one another faithfully and often. We need to hold each other in prayer. We thereby can and even will be empowered to see one another as children of God, equal before God. And oh, by the way, say one for me. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I need to say two things. The item I’ve prepared and something off the top of my head. First, the impromptu piece. I had the honor of being in the presence of the Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu before he won the Nobel Prize. Someone asked how much he prayed during a single day. He said two to three hours, unless he was under stress. Then it was between three and four hours. As to the second piece, today I said we are ‘children of God.’ Certainly one of the issues in society right now is that some people are seen as outcast, as different, as the other, especially when we do not agree with them. But we are, all of us, children of God. And in God’s world no one is outcast, different, other. I think praying for others, especially those who society sees as outcast, different, other— whether we know them or not— can be life changing. At least for me, when I pray for those I do not know or with whom I do not agree, it becomes much harder for me to fail to see them as children of God.”
BENEDICTION: We have gathered, not just as a community, but as a community of faith. Let us respond to God, who is the true reality, in all that we are and say and do. Let the Holy Spirit dwell among us and may the peace of God which surpasses our understanding be with us this day and forever more. Amen.