Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sermon preached at the Cathedral Eucharist, Trinity 12B, Proper 16

Pray for me, that when I speak a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel...
Lord – in your mercy hear my prayer.

That process of prayer before preaching is something we take for granted, I'm sure...and I know, if I'm honest, that more often than not, if I'm in the congregation, my involvement in the preacher's prayer is limited to a formulaic “Amen”...though the view is rather different when I'm standing here, as I am right now, hugely conscious of the sheer presumptuousness of ascending these steps to speak about God and expecting others - you - to listen!

Just who do I think I am??

Preaching the word can surely only be possible if we hand the whole process over directly to God.
That's why for me the hope that the words I preach will be in the name of the Father, Son & Holy Spirit always comes in the form of a petition . “May I speak...” and not a declaration "I speak..."
How could it be otherwise.?
I'm overwhelmingly conscious that when those words are simply the overflow of my own hyper-active thoughts, they remain disturbingly earth-bound. I need, then, to engage with Paul's exhortation to pray in the Spirit...for the whole business of prayer is, of course, always about both communication and relationship.

But here as we meet for worship it would be easy to take it for granted. It's pretty much the first thing we do whenever we gather to hear God's Word, and to support one another in the life of faith. We come as individuals, carrying all the joys & concerns of our own lives, and as we pray The Spirit knits us together, and transforms us into the Body of Christ. Together we hear, see, taste, smell, feel, and sing God's love. And we respond in prayer.
Prayer is what most sets a church apart from any other sort of gathering.
It's our core purpose – and there is something about meeting somewhere where prayer has “been valid” since the days of Leofric and Godiva that adds extra impetus to the process.
My former bishop Michael Perham reminds us that prayer is like a spring running underground throughout our worship. “We hear the scriptures read, but in a way we pray them and that is why God is able to speak to us through them. We listen to the sermon, but in a way we pray it ...and it the prayer that changes it from dry theology into good news for our lives. We sing hymns and psalms, chants and songs, but at another level we pray them...”
Prayer is the life blood of the Christian community...the means by which we put down deep roots into God

But prayer is not, really, about what we do. It is, to quote Rowan Williams, rather an environment that we inhabit...the environment that is our relationship with God.
Among many many books on prayer on my shelves is one called simply “An Affair of the Heart”.
I love that reminder.
Prayer is an affair of the heart...
It should have nothing to do with duty – with the formulaic business of “saying our prayers” - though it's true that established habit and carefully crafted words can hold us steady when our hearts and minds are in tumult.
Terese of Liesieux puts it beautifully
I say very simply to God what I wish to say, without composing beautiful sentences, and he always understands me. For me prayer is an aspiration of the heart...”

An aspiration...

A longing of our heart to turn towards God...a re-orientation of heart, mind, spirit as God calls us back to our truest selves.
And that aspiration is outstripped in every way by God's longing to reach out to us.

So prayer is most truly a conversation based on the language of love.
The love with which God reaches out to us, in myriad ways...through creation, through the arts, through Scripture, through one another – and above all through his Son, the living, breathing Jesus, who walked the earth, and the risen Lord who invites us here to meet him in bread and wine
God's endless unconditional love ....and the faltering love that we offer in return.
Here is the God whose arms are always open...who waits constantly for us to turn towards him, whose heart aches in longing for us to come to know Him...the God who is “always more ready to hear that we are to pray” and whose boundless generosity outstrips even our egocentric demands.

But we are oddly resistant – bafflingly narrow in our view of what God can do in us and for us.
He offers us life in all its fulness, “more than we either desire or deserve” but we ask instead for a win for the Sky Blues, fine weather for a wedding, or a 4 bedroomed house in Earlsdon.

Perhaps it is because we are too conscious of our own shortcomings, “guilty of dust and sin” - but you know, God has already dealt with that.
No matter how much we may struggle with ourselves, with those recurrent patterns of thought and behaviour that we have tried and tried and tried to bury, with the distressing realisations that “That – THAT – is part of me!!”...God has already dealt with it.

Yes – even those things we can't bear to mention or acknowledge.
God, in Christ, has them covered.
Forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid”...

Perhaps though we're simply too busy to bother. Prayer seems a pointless waste of our valuable time – for we're trapped in the self-important, self-reliant habits of contemporary life that leave little sense of the deepest realities
People on sinking ships complain of many things, but never of distraction in their prayers” said Herbert McCabe...and it's surely true that we petition with most urgency when we know that we are at the end of our own resources.
At that place where human capabilities are exhausted, and material distractions lose their power, prayer takes off as never before - for at that point we know that what we most need are words of eternal life.
To whom shall we go...?” indeed.

But in the meantime, perhaps it is simply that we don't believe prayer will change anything.
Sometimes we may not recognise God's gifts...
We pray for healing and perhaps God's gift to our loved one is the healing that comes as he gathers them safely into his arms.
Was our prayer answered?
Not as we chose...but surely the answer came.
If we imagine that prayer is all about changing God's mind, about bringing him round to our way of thinking – our hopes will often be disappointed, and so we decide to give up.
Transformation will happen right enough....but it's most likely to be a transformation of US as we pray, as we spend time with God, as we honestly struggle to mean those well-worn words “thy will be done”.

Sometimes, of course, we shy away from the recognition that God invites us to become the answer to our own prayers...that, having prayed for the poor and hungry to be relieved, it falls to us to go and feed them...but that is part of a continuing conversation as well. 
I know that when I'm tempted to let fly at God about refugees, global warming, child poverty, I can expect to hear God challenging me to BE an active part of the Body of back up my words with radical action.

Prayer will change me, if I let it...and it is certainly futile to pray if you have no intention of doing anything different when you rise from your knees – for in every relationship we can expect to be changed by the one with whom we're engaged.
In this relationship we place ourselves, trembling, in the hands of the living God....and as we place ourselves where God can touch us, and try to let go of the protective layers of assumptions about ourselves, and about God which so often disrupt our conversation, we become more truly, fully ourselves...

There in the stillness, where words cease, is God.
And you.
And I.
And all the needs of the broken, hurting world.

Rowan Williams again.
When you're lying on the beach, something is happening that has nothing to do with how you feel or how hard you're trying. You're not going to get a better tan by screwing up your eyes and concentrating. You give the time, and that's it. All you have to do is turn up. And then things change...You simply have to be there where the light can get at you”

So, in the end, there is nothing really to understand...nothing to “get right” props required, no special words - not even "hands together and eyes closed".
Prayer is all about love, God's love reaching out to us and helping us to respond little by little, as we are brought into alignment with the One who calls us to know him, leads us to trust him and speaks to us the words of eternal Him be glory both now and forever.

Almighty and everlasting God, 
you are always more ready to hear than we to pray
 and to give more than either we desire or deserve
pour down upon us the  abundance of your mercy
forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid
and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask 
but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, 
who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, now and for ever.