Vicar's Sermon - 27th September 2015
I am something of a spiritual ‘mongrel’. As you may know, I was brought up in the Salvation Army. I became a Cathedral Chorister in Hereford. When I left the choir in my early teens I started to serve in the Cathedral: carrying the candles, helping at communion. But most of my friends attended other churches: the Elim Pentecostal church, and the local evangelical CofE church in the centre of town. I spilt myself between these places: the sacraments, the spirit, the word of God.
St. Peters, the evangelical church, was humming when I was young: children’s work, youth groups, an evening group that met in the curate’s front room and was so crowded that sometimes people had to climb through the window to get in. In the background of my experience there was Charlie Strong, a white haired, elderly vicar (or so he seemed to me) who I hardly knew but to whom I feel I owe a great spiritual debt of thanks. Alongside him were a team of three Readers, and in their number was Dorothy. Again, I hardly knew Dorothy but it was clear that she was a much loved member of the church and so the doctor’s diagnosis of her terminal cancer rocked the church. Songs of praise came to Hereford at that time. Dorothy was interviewed on the programme and spoke of her illness and of her faith, of her young family and the journey ahead of her. At some point I remember being told, as in our epistle this morning, that the elders of the church (Rev Strong, the curate, the Readers and young people’s workers) had gathered at Dorothy’s bedside to pray for healing and to anoint her with oil. It was the first time I had come across this passage in the epistle of James: I don’t know what I expected to happen, whether I believed God would miraculously heal Dorothy. I left for University and learned of Dorothy’s death some time later.
Understanding prayer is hard. Most vicars, this one included, will have any number of prayer books on their shelves and any number of books about prayer alongside them. Of prayer books there are many: books with prayers from Taize, from Iona, prayers in the Celtic tradition, traditional prayers, liturgies and service books for young people, for generation XY& Z, prayers for older people, prayers for women, prayers that use paint and stones and candles and ikons and dance and labyrinths. There are lots and lots of prayers and ways of praying.
But then there are books about prayer: about silence and contemplation, about finding God in darkness or discovering Him in the light, about confession, about adoration, about thanksgiving and blessing but most, most difficult of all...about intercession. What do we understand is going on when we pray, when we pray for our loved ones, when we pray for those in need, when we pray for anything. Are we trying to twist God’s arm, trying to cajole Him into doing something He doesn’t want to when we pray?
I think it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said something along the lines of ‘whenever a person prays they are performing an act of resistance’ in the world. By which he meant that Christian prayer, simply through its existence is a recognition that there is more to this world than we see on its surface. Behind and within creation there is the One we call God. Whenever we pray we break through the deceit that says ‘that this ‘surface world’ is all there is’: a world of inexorable processes that we cannot control. Prayer reaches out beyond these things. When Dorothy’s friends gathered round her to pray I don’t know what she expected to happen but my guess is that their prayer helped everyone to be aware (in the most awful of circumstances) of God’s presence. The symbol of anointing focussed something of God’s desire to bless, strengthen and renew not just Dorothy but all of His creation. Prayer was the church’s way of saying ‘God is here. God is faithful. God loves. God heals, He will raise you up’.
It seems that intercessory prayer is not so much about ‘persuasion’- pushing God into a corner, bending His ear and ‘making Him do something’. It is more about ‘connection and awareness: Connection with God, our Father and with those for whom we pray. Awareness of God, our Father, and a deeper awareness of those for whom we pray.
Prayer, in the end, is about relationship.
The name Bishop John Robinson may mean something to older members of the congregation. Back in the 1960s Bishop Robinson tried to help new generation of Christians to speak of God in new ways. He tried to help the church out of repeating tired formulas about God that were losing their meaning. At the heart of what become known as the ‘Honest to God’ debate (the title of his book) he said: ‘When I pray I do not pray to the ground of my being I pray to God as Father. Prayer, for the Christian, is the opening of oneself to that utterly gracious personal reality which Jesus could only address as ‘Abba. Father.’
Another Bishop, Michael Ramsey was asked about prayer. How much do you pray. Referring to his pattern of saying his morning and evening prayers every day his answer was along the lines of ‘I spend 30 minutes preparing to pray and 30 seconds praying’. Saying your prayers is essential but it is not always the same as praying. The words can be helpful but often ‘the connection’, the ‘awareness’ of God isn’t there. There are many discouragements to prayer and sometimes the sense that God hasn’t turned up in our prayers is the main one: the gap in time between that awareness of God’s presence can grow very long. And then it is as if we have tuned in on an old crystal radio and the connection is made: our prayer ‘gets through’. Should we stop praying because it is so hard? Should we stop seeking God’s presence? Should we cut off our feelings of compassion for those in need and not bring them to God in prayer?
If we are praying ‘in the spirit of Jesus’ then we cannot but keep going because He has shown us that to be truly human is precisely to be engaged with the world, with its triumphs and disasters, with its people. And one of His greatest gifts has been to enable us to call God ‘Father’. Somehow, by holding the world and God together in our prayers we find ourselves actually held by Him. It is not us who brings life and renewal to the world but God, yet somehow he does so through and with us. We become bound tighter to those for whom we pray. Even if they are on the other side of the world and their names are not known to us, they are supported by our love (which is a reflection of God’s love) and the world is better for this.
Prayer is an expression of God’s love working through us. If we are finding prayer difficult then perhaps this prayer of St Augustine’s might help us get started again: O Lord, the house of my soul is narrow; enlarge it that you may enter in.