Sunday, 16 October 2016

A Sermon on Today's Readings

Preached at Middleton and Chirbury . . .

One of the mildly insulting words people use about those who go to church is "God-botherers". We are (they say) people who bother God - which implies that God would much rather be left alone, and that when we pray or go to church we’re wasting our and God’s precious time. I’ve always assumed God would be more bothered by my absence from church than my presence there. But I suppose our prayers could bother him. It bothers me when people chase after me with questions and complaints and lists of things for me to do.

A few weeks ago I was watching the birds in my garden, and a group of three sparrows were pecking about under the feeders - a mother bird and two more or less fully grown children, who were still chasing about after her, wanting attention and demanding to be fed. For a while the parent bird put up with their fussing; but then something snapped, and mum rounded on her kids and sent them packing. I have to admit I do recognise that emotion.

Would God recognise it too? Let’s think about the story Jesus told about the unjust judge. I think we can all sympathize with the widow who pursued him demanding justice, and I’m glad that in the story her persistence paid off. Whether that would have happened in real life I don’t know, though; a judge that bent might well have used his legal powers to get the woman locked up; he’d have shut her up and got her off his back without any need to respond to her demands. But that doesn't detract from the point of the parable, which is that persistence pays off.

And while human justice may be deficient, and human judges unjust, and corrupt, God is eternally just, and we can rely on him to hear our prayers and respond to them. In other words, Jesus is telling us that it's always worth our bothering God, it’s what he wants us to do.

But I can think of times in my life when it doesn’t feel as if my prayer’s been heard; when I ask but don’t seem to get an answer. Or perhaps I should really that God hasn’t answered my prayer in the way I wanted him to. And that’s why Jesus told this parable - to encourage his disciples to persevere, to be persistent in their praying, to go on doing it even when they'd begun to feel disheartened, started to wonder what was the point of it all. Even those first disciples found it hard to keep praying.

And I know I do. My main problem is discipline and commitment: the lack of those things. I don't plan as well as I should, and even when I do plan my prayers for a regular time each day, I can still be racing through them with one eye on my watch, so that I’ve finished in time for tea. Well, I tell myself, when you’re as busy as I am, something has to give. I think it was John Wesley who described himself as “too busy not to pray”. That’s a perspective I lack, when I think about it. It’s not that I need to make space for prayer in my busy life; more that I need to make prayer the central pillar around which my busy life is built. I know that, but I don’t do it well; it’s all too easy for prayer to become the optional extra that gets squeezed or even missed out altogether. I should think about the widow in the parable, for whom nothing was more important than her campaign to get justice. She was round the judge's house morning noon and night, bothering him all she could. Shouldn’t my praying be just as important?

There’s an issue about how we pray, and when, and why. If all I do is read other people’s words, with perhaps a sort of shopping list of things I want God to do, my prayer life is sadly deficient. Think about it - if I only speak to my neighbour when I want something off him, and if when I speak to him I don’t use my own words but read someone else’s, I can’t claim to have much of a relationship with him. Faith is about relationship with God, and that relationship is expressed, and indeed made, in the way we do prayer. In the way I do prayer.

So my prayer should strive to be conversation, communication, communion. It should include space for me to be aware of what God wants to say to me, how he wants to prompt me. My prayer needs to be honest, and therefore confessional; I should be facing up to things, saying sorry, when I pray. But when I pray I need also to be praising God and thanking him; and I should be committing myself to do his will. Prayer is a sacrificial thing: each time I pray I should be offering myself afresh to be of use in God’s service. And none of that will happen as it should if I’m rushed and I skimp my prayer. The number of words I use isn’t all that important, nor how good they are; but the place and the time I give is. And to be full and complete prayer needs practice and planning, and to be grounded in scripture.

I usually do say the Lord's Prayer when I pray. But when I do I’m maybe not thinking too hard about the words. They’re so familiar. But there are four words in the Lord’s Prayer that are vital to all our understanding of prayer, and they are these: 'thy will be done'. There is the essential heart of our praying.

Not long ago I was in the Oxfam second hand book shop in Aberystwyth, and I looked through the “religion” section, as I usually do. I picked up a book that had a title that looked interesting, and was disappointed to find it was actually not a book about Christian spirituality but something rather new agey hat seemed to include spells and incantations. Since the next book along the shelf was a book of Celtic prayers, I suppose whoever arranged them had decided that the two books were more or less the same. But in fact, they couldn't have been more different. Magic, as I see it, is to do with seeking power, so the elemental forces of the universe can be bent to serve one’s own needs and desires. And if that might at first sound a bit like the widow banging on and on at the unjust judge, really it isn't.

For at the heart of our praying is this: that, whatever we may ask of God, we bow our own selves to his will. Prayer isn’t about bargaining with God or trying to bribe him, saying, "Do this for me, God, and I'll give you that in return". Or it shouldn’t be, anyway. Even if sometimes that is what we do.

I’m reminded of the story of the man who always began his prayers by saying: "Now, God, if you could just manage to see things my way." What about seeing things his way? Think of how Jesus prayed, think of him in deep distress in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of Good Friday, with the guards already on their way to arrest him. The last words of his prayer were "Even so, thy will, not mine, be done." And we should say the same.

Magic spells are a declaration of power and control, but prayer is a declaration of trust and humility. Thy will, not mine, be done. Our own vision when we pray is restricted: by our own mortality, by our own circles of friends, of desires, of where in a worldly sense we belong, by the limits of our human understanding; but we are praying to the one who is eternally faithful, unlike the unjust judge. God’s faithfulness endures from generation to generation. And so Jesus tells us, as he told those first disciples: don’t give up; keep praying.

Prayer won’t be a short cut to all our hurt and sadness instantly being magicked away; but it is what God desires of us, as any good parent wants from his or her children: that we keep in touch, that we tell him how we feel. Our offering of prayer rises to him like sweet incense, so scripture tells us; and the relationship is made and remade as we pray, between we his children and he our heavenly Father. And when we persevere in prayer we will find in that growing and vital relationship the strength, insight, vision and love we need, not for an easy life but to get on with things - as pilgrims and disciples in this world, and as citizens already of his kingdom. Amen.

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