Sermon for Easter 6 – High Mass Sunday 28 May 2017
You may have read this week about a Nigerian church pastor who has God’s phone number and just gets him on the phone when he needs instructions. Makes you think.
‘You have reached heaven. Please select one of the following five options.
Press 1 for Requests;
Press 2 for Thanksgiving;
Press 3 for Complaints;
Press 4 for Information on the Whereabouts of Deceased family and Friends;
Press 5 if you have an enquiry about your Reservation in Heaven.
Then, after a looped recording of King David singing psalms, Mary singing the Magnificat, and tamborine woman Miriam belting out her Red Sea hit,
‘All the angels are busy helping other sinners at the moment. Your prayer is important to Heaven and will be answered in the order it was received; please stay on the line.’
This is prayer as perfomance, and possibly manipulation. From Acts we’ve just heard how the earliest members of church constantly devoted themselves to prayer as a habit of daily life; John’s Gospel reminded us of Jesus praying for himself and his followers with a similar sense of it as natural behaviour.
The disciples, Acts records, had the good fortune to be praying in company with Mary, whose prayers and help we also seek. Pope Francis suggests, in a magnificently non-PC phrase that if we don’t want Mary as a Mother we will certainly have her as a Mother-in-Law. His serious point is that we should approach prayer as a familial and familiar exercise, as the most natural conversational activity we can imagine.
One of the gifts of Easter is the ease with which we are shown how to pray. God cannot do more to show us how real and powerful is his love for us than in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Through Jesus we have been brought into the family of God; our prayer is often, quite rightly, like dinner-time conversation, catching up on how the day is going, alerting our father and brother to what’s in store in the days ahead.
Jesuit priest Fr Frank Wallace wrote a book on prayer called Encounter, Not Performance. His title communicates his point. Many of us who find prayer difficult think that praying is about a performance that will change God. We turn up and put on a show that we hope God will find pleasing; or it can be a bit like pressing one of those call options.
Fr Wallace, however, says that prayer is an encounter, a meeting of friends. We do not have to do anything in prayer. In the words of Marx – Groucho, not Karl – ‘don’t just do something; stand there!’ God does not need a show from us, in fact the more we pretend before God the more God must surely wonder why we are bothering. To stretch the family analogy further, some performed prayers are like those endless circular family arguments. Everyone involved knows what the end will be; it happened last Christmas too; we’re all wondering why we can’t just cut out the tedious performance of rancorous and recriminatory verbiage in the middle; why say things you need not, that everyone in the conversation knows already. Performative prayer may not be filled out with rancour and recrimination, but there are often equally unhelpful self-justifying or self-serving elements to it, surely pointless if we take one second to remember whom we are addressing. Jesus urges us not to pile up empty phrases in prayer, but to speak directly to God as to a loving parent.
Following the witness of Jesus and the leaders of the early church, we are encouraged to make ourselves available to God and experience his loving presence, in any way that helps us draw closer to the one who created, loves, sustains and saves us. What helps one person in prayer may not help someone else and so the rich diversity of the church’s tradition in prayer reflects the variety of ways we can encounter God. The rule is ‘if it helps, do it; if it doesn’t, don’t’.
There are many templates and formulae and they do not always fall into the ‘performance’ trap: after all, words are the way we create meaning and it makes a difference which ones we choose.
Above all, to follow my underlying theme, there’s the prayer our Lord himself gave us in which we address God as ‘our’ Father; there’s the official prayer of the church, the daily office; also traditional devotions such as the rosary, and the threefold daily recolletion of the incarnation in the Angelus (Mary again); there are pilgrimage ways of praying, as in tomorrow’s National Pilgrimage to Walsingham, and there are Retreat ways of praying as some of us experienced last week. There are the well-known and tested formulations of prayer by, e.g., St Francis (‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace’) or St Richard of Chichester (‘…may we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day’); there are the collects of the church. These and many other ways of praying conform to St Augustine’s advice to his friend Proba about why God wishes us to pray:
The Lord our God does not want our will, which he cannot fail to know, to become known to him, but our desire, by which we can receive what he prepares to give, to be exercised in prayers. Letter 130
You do have to pick formulae thoughtfully, the right ones for you. My bugbear is the so-called serenity prayer, found on many a pastel plaque in many a pastel Christian bookshop:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.
I prefer the version by my favourite Australian Jesuit, Fr Richard Leonard, which he calls the Senility Prayer:
God grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into the ones I do, and the eyesight to tell the difference. Amen.