The Rev. Casey dunsworth

serves as Associate Campus Pastor to the Belfry, the Lutheran-Episcopal Campus Ministry to UC Davis

and as Program Director for LEVN, the Lutheran Episcopal Volunteer Network.

Living On a Prayer—A Sermon Wholly Void of Bon Jovi, Though

You may be wondering what you're doing here on a Sunday; don't I preach on Wednesdays? Surprise! I preached this sermon this morning to the good people of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, usually the home of my seminary classmate The Rev. Jeremy Serrano


I bring you greetings from the Belfry, your Lutheran-Episcopal Campus Ministry to UC Davis and LEVN, the Lutheran-Episcopal Volunteer Network, part of Episcopal Service Corps. I spend my days, and many of my weeknights, with a handful of young folks who are living in Davis temporarily.

Some of them are UC Davis undergraduate students, here for a few jam-packed years studying and socializing, looking for a place to step out of the fray for a moment and meet people who “get” them.

Some of them are UC Davis graduate students, continuing their academic journeys in more specific ways, looking for a place that’s decidedly not buzzing with the near-death experience of cutthroat exams.

And some of them have graduated from colleges around the country, and are living in half of our little yellow duplex for 11 months, serving in local non-profit organizations and attempting to create intentional community together.

Sure, we’re the place you can definitely find a Lutheran pastor and an Episcopal priest, but we’re a place that invites more questions than it provides answers.

As a young adult myself—yep, I also fall into the under-30 demographic of the folks involved in our ministry—I feel right at home in this place of transitions and learning experiences and questions. We gather each week for worship and for dinner—nothing says “young adults” quite like free food—and we stay connected in the in-between via Facebook and emails and iMessage emoji. It is my duty and my joy to be among this particular genre of the communion of saints.

Since we gather on weeknights instead of on Sunday mornings, my colleagues know that I am a pretty safe bet for a Sunday morning supply gig. Pastor Jeremy and I were at PLTS at the same time, and so at a recent First Call Theological Education gathering in Arizona, he invited me to be here this morning. I always jump at the chance! It is such a delight to get out into the synod on Sundays like this one, to commune with the good people of congregations like yours. 

In campus and other young adult ministries, we are keenly aware of the wider network of congregations and ministries that we serve alongside, because our community members came to us fairly recently from somewhere else, and we do our best to successfully launch them to what’s coming next. We are so grateful for the home parishes of our students and LEVN volunteers—places like this—who raised them in the faith and sent them off to college and beyond. We know that you send them off in the hope that they will grow in faith and in love and in service to God and to one another.

As you have sent and continue to send your young-adult family members and members of your parish off to college or their next great adventure, we know that you are praying for them and wishing them well. We know that you have entrusted them to us, and with God’s help, we care for them and guide them through their time with us. Keep them coming, and we’ll keep them going.

In this season of Easter, all of us have been reading through the Acts of the Apostles, encountering the stories of Jesus’ friends who continued the work after his death, resurrection, and ascension. It’s our same cast of characters from the gospels, those pesky disciples with their impertinent questions and constant bickering and general misunderstanding of the whole point.

In this week’s story, they have come together one final time with the risen Christ, and—for old times’ sake—still aren’t totally sure what’s happening. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” they ask. Their risen Lord replies, as usual, as I imagine it, with a sigh: “it is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”

But! “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:6-8). In other words, “no, but that doesn’t mean never, so continue what we’ve started.”

A weird part about the season of Easter is that we are sort of in a paradox of Jesus being risen and not-yet-risen, depending on which reading we’re talking about. In this reading from Acts, Jesus has already been killed, then raised, and now is ascending to heaven. But in our Gospel text for this morning, he is awaiting arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. In both scenes, he is with his friends, talking to them and to God about what has happened and what is going to happen.

We could go back and forth for a while, probably, about whether or not the apostles are adequately prepared to do what God needs them to do. We could go back and forth for an even longer while, probably, about whether or not we feel adequately prepared for what God needs us to do. Jesus sits in the garden and prays for his friends, and we follow in all of their footsteps. It is comforting to me and perhaps comforting to you to know that on his last night of life, Jesus prayed for us. And, certainly, the risen Christ remembers us, as well.

In this Gospel According to John, Jesus prays, “Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf” (John 17:7-9).

Jesus is praying on behalf of his friends and on all people whom God has given to him, all those whom God has created to be God’s people—Jesus’ 12 friends, and the women, and you and me. In his prayer, Jesus asks God to protect us, so that we all may be one, as Christ and the Creator are one. What a lovely sentiment, and a deep challenge. “If the emphasis on unity can be seen in Jesus’ prayer, then we can conclude that he was aware that keeping his beloved united” was not going to be easy. And that, “without cohesion, they would not survive.”  [1]

As Christians in the United States of America in 2017, we are being pulled in many directions by many powers and principalities. We are seeing play out on the local, national, and global stage, just how many choices we have. We are a nation of many. We are a nation of native peoples, and of immigrants, and of the descendants of immigrants, and of the descendants of enslaved people. We are many metaphors of community—a melting pot or a salad bowl or a dazzling bouquet of every kind of flower—none of these is one, stagnant, stationary thing. The unity in Christ that we proclaim does not insist on sameness.

Perhaps this prayer of Jesus gives us an opportunity to consider what that unity means. We know that as the trinity is three and is also one, we, too, are millions and are also one. I hear this prayer as a sincere petition for unity, but not for uniformity. For us to sing not in unison but in harmony. For us to be individuals-in-community. We, the body of Christ, are called to be a living and breathing and dying and rising organism—changing and growing and reforming from age to age.

We are interacting on a routine basis with one another here in this building and church buildings like it; we are engaging with our families, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and acquaintances in the good work of the Gospel and in all manner of things; we are encountering strangers on the road and in the grocery store and at the gas station and in the post office and any number of seemingly mundane scenarios where the truth of our community resides.

As we go about our days, are we living as the witnesses to the resurrection that Jesus has sent us out to be? 

Are we recognizable as the body of Christ?

In order to live deeply into our call as the body of Christ, we need to live out the example set for us by Jesus in this week’s Gospel text. We need to pray. We need to pray, and we need to get serious about it. As disciples in the present, we must “offer prayers on behalf of the universe in which we are privileged to live and our neighbors with whom we share it.” [2]

We know this, in theory. We have prayed several times together already since we arrived this morning, and we’re not done yet! There may be words of prayer we know by heart. There may be prayers we grew up saying, and maybe even still say! There may be times of the day or times of our lives we feel more inclined to pray. There may be whole seasons of our lives during which we cannot even fathom putting anything together that even remotely resembles a prayer. 

Often, when we are struggling, we reach out to friends or family members and ask them to pray for us—before a medical procedure, or when we’re waiting for news (good or bad), or when we’re trying to make a big decision, or when we’re just feeling kind of lost. It feels wonderful to hear you’re being prayed for, doesn’t it? And when someone dear to you is in need of prayer, it feels good to say, “I’m keeping you in my prayers”—whether in person or in a Facebook comment, right?  

Has there ever been a time when you’ve said you’d pray for someone and then, well, sort of just...didn’t? Or maybe you were going to, and then before you got a chance, you did the 4000 other things you had on your to-do list and then suddenly the friend told you the results of the thing you were supposed to be praying about—maybe even said, “thanks for your prayers!” and you just sort of...let it go? Let me tell you, we have all been there. And if you haven’t, you can be the first to teach us all how to cement our prayer lives into action.

I am not your regularly-scheduled preacher, and I do not have the capacity to follow up with you next week, or the week after that, but I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t set you a challenge before I sat back down. Our deep and abiding task is to, like the apostles before us, constantly devote ourselves to prayer.

Consider how you might embody that devotion. Consider how you might take very seriously the prayer requests you receive, and the prayers of intercession we offer later this morning, and the prayer that Jesus taught us that we’ll say—as we have said 1000 times—during the Eucharist.

Pray for one another. Pray for yourself. Pray for your pastor. Pray for the people that you see suffering in your community and around the world. Pray for the people you see experiencing great joys in your community and around the world. Constantly devote yourself to prayer.

Whatever that looks like. Whatever words you say, or don’t say; whatever actions you take or don’t take; whatever movement of your body feels like a prayer to you—or perhaps your body needs to try residing in a prayerful stillness. Laughter can serve as a prayer, and tears can serve as a prayer.

Perhaps, through this constant devotion, we will begin to recognize that our whole lives are prayers. And for that, thanks be to God.


[1] Samuel Cruz, “Commentary on John 17:1-11” for Working Preacher.

[2] Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Prayers for the Coming Week

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