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Saturday, 27 July 2013

Our Father who does what?

SERMON PREACHED AT THE CHURCH OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD
FRED’S PASS (NORTHERN TERRITORY)
ORDINARY SUNDAY 17 / TENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
(28th JULY) 2013

 

Readings:        Hosea 1.2-10
                        Psalm 85
                        Colossians 2.6-19
                        Luke 11.1-13

 Amongst the many characteristics of Luke’s writing is an extra emphasis on the centrality of prayer to the life of a follower of Jesus. Prayer itself is mystery, and I will never attempt to define it, only, however poorly, to practice it. I have no rational words to describe this, one of the most ludicrous yet essential of Christians’ (and others’) activities, yet for those of us who seek to follow in the footsteps of the Nazarene it is almost what writers call a sine qua non, a ‘without which then not at all.’ To make matters more complex I do not think there is a right or wrong, but rather a complex web of ways to pray, and as Luke records Jesus’ own teachings at this point – and does so with quite striking variations from Matthew’s record of the same or a similar moment, he certainly does not establish any one rule or pattern of prayer.
 
To pray is to participate in mystery (though that in itself is not welcome in some quarters of a rationalist society). Matthew records his version of this teaching on the practice prayer as being a part of the great Teachings or so-called Sermon on the Mount, and sees prayer as a matter for deep privacy. I too tend to see it that way, and, except for the rituals of public and liturgical prayer (of which more in a moment) tend to mumble my prayers in private, far from the eyes of those around me. Others see prayer as an act of witness – let’s be honest: I’m not very good at whatever that is, either! – and I suspect Myers-Briggs or similar might tell us a whole lot about those differences in taste. Nevertheless, whatever our personality, prayer seems to be a dimension that can take us beyond the smallness of ourselves and connect us to greater dimensions.
 
So what is prayer? It seems to me to be many things, but at the very least it is the beat of the butterfly wing of faith. Some of you may know the chaos theory that the beat of a butterfly’s wing may be the catalyst that starts the greatest storm. Chaos theory, dismantling the certainties of a mechanical, clockwork universe, warns us that – within logical guidelines – anything can happen. The butterfly’s wing does not cause a tornado: it may however influence the events in ways we can never ascertain. Can our prayers in the same way influence the heart of God? While prayers for, for example, Syria or for the boat people often seen to reverberate around an empty universe I see enough signs along the way to wonder if that is really so. As a dear parishioner of mine in a previous parish was fond of saying, the time-span of divinity is infinite, and who is to say which beating butterfly’s wing brought down the Berlin Wall, released Mandela from Gaol, or will one day beat swords into ploughshares?

In my days as a Pentecostal and later as an Anglican evangelical it was fashionable to look on the formalised prayers of liturgy as empty mouthings – vain repetitions was the preferred phrase. One might equally respond that the Lord-Lord really-really-just-Lord construction of much extempore prayer is an equally vain repetition, and I’m sure both forms can become no more than the banging of a tin drum. God, on the other hand is I suspect not so interested in form as in intention, and there is no Hogwarts style right formula to win the ear of the divine.

Nevertheless, what is prayer in applied terms? Is prayer, as I sometimes say self-mockingly, only possible when we have a book? Of course not! Is it possible only when it is extempore, without a book, with or without suckings of breath and repeated Lord, Lords? Well, no. Is prayer possible only in tongues? Is a quick ‘lord help me’ or ‘lord, remember Joe’ a prayer? Well, yes: all these are prayers. The great mighty acts of liturgy, the rousing ecstasies of Pentecostal praise, the inarticulate shedding of tears over the body of a dead or dying child, performance of the sign of the cross, or the wordless or maybe thought-accompanied lighting of a candle: these are all prayer, and there is no wrong or right, as long as the doer of the prayer or prayer-thought is directing their butterfly wing into the heart of God.

For me the great strength of liturgical rites – and they were a part of Christian practice from the moment of the conception of Jesus – is that they are collective, representative, bringing together the thoughts and “unthoughts” of the saints throughout space in time, particularly at times when I can find no words to overcome my shortsightedness or my own ocean of feelings. But they are not the be all and end all of prayer, and whatever we point in the ‘direction’ of God will do in times of need. What in fact this prayer of Jesus, in either Matthew’s or Luke’s rendition, does emphasize is the accessibility of God – just beyond our sight, just where we direct of heart in times of our need or the need of others. “Abba”, says Jesus (not uniquely, for the psalmist used a similar construction centuries before). Abba: intimate friend, parent, care giver, hear the prayers and longings of my heart, spoken and unspoken.

Ultimately, though the Lord’s Prayer is a useful liturgical prayer, and all liturgical prayers have value as they lead us into the collective experience of praying, rather than individualistic efforts, perhaps its greatest benefit is as a template for all our prayers. The respect with which it approaches God is tempered by the knowledge that God, though not a “mate”, is accessible to us, and we do have access to the divine ear. The prayer dares to dream of a “not yet”, and invisible dimension of justice and equality which we cannot see reflected in our viewings of the world (on earth … as in heaven”). The prayer asks God to sustain in us a faith and hope that will transcend - - not protect, but transcend – all trials and sufferings that we might undergo (not least by keeping us embedded in a community of fellow-travellers-in-faith).  He prayer exposes us to the risky and countercultural business of forgiveness, by which our lives grow in the Christlike image to which we are urged as followers of Jesus.
Above all though the prayer takes us out of the smallness of our perspective and invites us into the eternal perspectives of God. That is not so bad a place to learn to be, however hard it may sometimes seem to be.

TLBWY
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