Sermon for TRINITY 17 – HIGH MASS Sunday 27 September 2015
Sermon preached by Father Julian Browning
James 5. 13-end
Prayer works, but it doesn’t work if we don’t pray. The Letter of James which we’ve heard over five Sundays, closes today with a call to prayer. This isn’t a call to dutiful prayer as we know it. This is about transforming your life. In the Letter of James there are over sixty imperatives. Do this. This is confident faith, in these early epistles we hear the distinctive Christian tone, and there had been nothing like it before. In the freshness, the newness, the momentum of early Christianity are these exchanges of remembrance in prayer. Each one is strengthened by all to go forward in a way worthy of God. That’s prayer in New Testament times.
The young monks in the desert in early Christian times were told in no uncertain terms: There is no labour greater than prayer. That was their job. Monasticism was and is a lay movement for all, men and women. This is our calling too. We can take all the help that’s going, and read all the books, but in the end a frail church can’t create a viable prayer life for us. The responsibility lies with us.
I used to say that prayer at home didn’t get going until we sorted out a regular time and place for it. I stand by that – a structure of some sort of daily praying helps us towards a balanced life. But the truth is that we won’t pray, and won’t know how to pray, until we want to pray. Will power isn’t enough. We resist. Then we cannot find that inner room which Jesus asks us to enter. Why might we not want to pray? Because our relationship with God is not what it was, there’s a broken link somewhere, we’ve wandered off as everyone does, maybe we are no longer sure about God’s love for us, or just forgotten what it’s like, however many times James might remind us, as he does in this chapter, that “The Lord is kind and compassionate.”
The fault is with us, but that can change. The Gospels are about finding peace and joy, and sharing these essential qualities of existence with others. This is clear in the letters of those early Christian communities. The saving work is done, the gift of eternal life to the world has been made. To pray is to accept that gift. Prayer can be laborious, and it consumes our time and energy, but this is our journey towards God and with God that we’re talking about, so it can never be whimsical, or half-hearted, or part time.
Christian prayer takes us out of our self-sufficient closed in lives and into a relationship with God. What form does our prayerful response take? We know all the different kinds of prayer: Supplication, Intercession, Thanksgiving, Request, Praise. How quickly we move to complicate our religion by assigning categories, so that nothing works for us!
Let’s keep it simple. St James in today’s epistle talks of prayer as “the eloquence of faith”, oratio fidei, the straightforward yes we say to a personal relationship to the Lord, loyal to the end, whatever goes right, whatever goes wrong. This prayer of faith, says James, will save those who are sick. In prayer, we come to see body and soul as indivisible, both healed together when brought before God.
Prayer is an act of listening. In Scripture God is “the One who speaks” – that is the religious experience recorded down the generations – the believer is the one who is called to listen. “Listening is better than sacrifice”, so says the Book of Samuel, sacrifice, you see, being the human initiative. “Listen to him”, says the voice from the cloud on the Mount of the Transfiguration. So we listen in pure silence, we listen through reading the Bible slowly and deliberately, we listen in contemplation of nature and beauty, we listen to the Word of God as a sigh too deep for words rising from dislocated suffering world around us, we listen to the God we see in the calm faces of holy men and women, we can listen everywhere, and that is prayer when it leads to vigilance, watchfulness, discernment, and a response in which Christ’s love rises within us, to understand, to heal, and, for ourselves, to bring us “back to the truth”, as St James puts it. Prayer is a way of processing life quite different from our usual calculating view. I’ve called it listening to God, but prayer might be better explained as listening for God; for what God is doing in our lives, and you can interpret that as broadly as you wish. God is the depth dimension of every part of our lives. How we pray will determine how we live, and how deeply we enter into life.
Prayer starts with listening, and ends by giving thanks. You can only say thank you to another person. When we do this in our prayers, we are saying that our relationship with God is in good order, or on the way there, that we are ready for, and grateful for, the gift of fullness of life, that gift for which James and Paul, John and Peter and the others praised God in their letters. In the deepest relationships, of course, the language, the language of love, the language of depth, of being present to another, is silence. It’s that simple. Is that a transformed life, for you and me? Yes, because the fruits of prayer are compassion, compassion for ourselves and compassion for others, the compassion Jesus showed. St Benedict says that the monk should be “eager for the work of God, opus dei”, this project of transformation by prayer, it should become a priority in his or her life, however difficult it gets. That is still our challenge today.