Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 25 February 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Lent 2 Evensong & Benedicion – Theme: Prayer
You’ll remember the parable of the unjust judge in Luke 18 (.1-8): a poor widow badgers a judge who cares neither for her plea nor even for justice, but he eventually gives her justice to get her off his back. The point is very simple: ‘persevere in prayer.’ And the rhetorical logic is familiar: take a disreputable example and say, if you can achieve justice by badgering a bad person, how much more will a just and loving God grant his children what they need.
For Christians the answer to the question ‘Why pray?’ is at once obvious, and at the same time quite complex: we pray because Jesus did it, and repeatedly told us to do it; he even gave us a template to use. So it is, first, a matter of faith, the topic of this evening’s lessons: prayer enacts faith. As Christians we are in no doubt about whether we should pray. But what are we actually doing when we pray?
We probably learned prayers at home or school or Sunday school or by coming to church. But if we think carefully about what we’re saying, praying for (or against!) this or that thing, it can seem a little barmy. As Richard Dawkins would leap to say, do we really think that it is good or even rational to suggest to God that he favours our specific request? It is what’s known as the scandal of particularity. I was once at a church growth conference in St Albans where the computer failed. Someone suggested that we pray for it. This didn’t work. Should we then conclude that the ‘Fresh Expressions’ section of that conference was not blessed by divine favour. Tempting as that would be, I’m afraid not. Yet all of us learn to pray in that way at first: asking for things. And Jesus’ parable proposes this form of prayer to us. There is a reason for that: his gospel, his good news is about our relationship with God, children together of a loving Father; faith, trust, is the content of good relationships. And it is natural to ask things of a loving Father.
But that doesn’t address the scandal of particularity.
St Augustine, who was alive to the problems of a simplistic attitude to prayer, wrote a letter to his friend Proba about about what we are doing in intercessory prayer, taking that parable as one of his texts:
Why does the Lord advise us to pray, when he knows what is needful for us before we ask it of him? This can puzzle us, if we do not understand that our Lord and God does not want our wishes to be made known to himself, since he cannot be ignorant of them; but he wants our desire to be exercised in prayer, thus enabling us to grasp what he is preparing to give. That is something very great indeed; but we are small and limited vessels for the receiving of it. …
We shall have a greater capacity to receive it, the more trustfully we believe, the more firmly we hope, the more ardently we desire.
So we pray always with unfailing desire in that faith, hope and charity. We pray to God at fixed intervals of hours and times, and in words, in order to remind ourselves by these symbols of reality, and to be aware how much progress we have made in our desire; also to rouse ourselves the more keenly to increase this desire. (Letter 130.17f.)
Richard Leonard SJ, in his book Why Bother Praying sums up St Augustine’s thought like this: ‘intercessory prayer … asks an unchanging God to change us to change the world.’
While Jesus’ parable is about prayer as asking, it is helpful to notice the content: the request is for ‘justice’, a good subject for prayer in any situation because ‘justice’ soars above our prejudices and the quirks and errors of personal judgement. Justice and mercy together are excellent subjects for prayer.
But the crucial advice here is not about the content but the technique: perseverance. And perseverance, as you will know, is a literally character-forming experience. We are to be formed as prayerful people; to align ourselves gradually more and more with God, in his pure love for us and the world, to ‘desire the blessed life’, as St Augustine put it.
Perseverance in prayer is vital. As Augustine says, regular times of prayer, however short, are helpful. As you know, we clergy are required to say the daily office, at least morning and evening prayer. Without the discipline of that I could not survive in this vocation or possibly my faith. But that nourishing diet of psalms, readings and formal prayers is not the only thing on the menu. It is the backbone of priestly discipline because we need it as the underlying rhythm of our vocation.
Some people prefer simply to say the Lord’s Prayer first thing in the morning and last thing at night: you can do a lot with that, especially if you take it more and more slowly. St Augustine says that we can find all we need here. Remember some of the key petitions:
Thy will be done – for those I love, for those I can’t stand; Thy kingdom come – in the conflict and destructive mess of human politics; and so on. You can adapt all the petitions and move out from them quite easily. That, together with the memorial of the incarnation, the Angelus, in which we also ask Mary’s help, will keep any Christian fruitfully talking and listening to God for a lifetime.
Michael Ramsey, the great 20th century Archbishop of Canterbury, was once famously asked on TV how much time he spent praying every day. Without hesitation he answered, ‘five minutes’. The 60’s equivalent of Paxman was theatrically taken aback: the Archbishop of Canterbury only prays for five minutes a day! ‘Ah’, said Ramsey, ‘but it takes me 55 minutes to get to that five minutes.’
Which leads me to the other thing I want to talk about: trying the ‘simple’ practice of quiet repose in God’s presence to help us grow in our relationship with God. John Dalrymple, whose book Simple Prayer I commended to the HM congregation last Sunday insists that we can move into this prayerful space more easily than we think. His focus, the ‘simplicity’ of his title, is this silent prayer. He writes:
When strangers meet, their only form of communication is by words. They have to speak, because between strangers, silence is a breakdown in communication. So at first a rather frantic (and superficial) exchange of words takes place; it is not at all relaxing because of the fear that gaps of silence may come along and spoil the conversation; nor is it communicative, because strangers for all their chatter of words do not risk talking about themselves in a revealing way. … But if, after a time, two strangers become friends, then a transformation takes place in their conversation. They begin to talk about their real, deeper selves. They also begin to be able to be silent with each other, for they discover that between friends silence is not a breakdown in communication but an alternative form of communication. … To get as far as this with people is extremely relaxing. It is the most enjoyable mark of friendship.
Prayer, our communication with God, follows the same pattern. There comes a time in prayer – in my experience it comes early for most people – when we find it is possible to pray without words in a silent wordless communion. We find we are no longer strangers with God, and need not look in a frantic fashion for words to fill the period of praying but can be quite relaxed in silence, speaking only when we want to, but also able to be silent and still in communion with the Lord.
… the tradition in the Church for many years has been that silent, wordless prayer is achieved by only a few after much effort. It is, I think, a false tradition. (p.17f.)
Later, in relating prayer to conduct, Dalrymple reminds us,
The christianity of the New Testament is not perfectionist, but relational. (p.67)
Prayer is the conversation, whether spoken or wordless, at the heart of that relationship.