Starting Places: Nothing left to lose
Holy Communion Service led by our Minister
This sermon is taken from Luke 11, verses 1-13
Starting Places: Nothing Left to Lose
SO-who is this week’s story all about?
Is it about the man who is caught in a domestic crisis (guests arriving late at night and having no food to feed them) and so hammers on his neighbour’s door for help, making such a nuisance of himself that in the end the neighbour gives him what he needs, just to get rid of him?
We don’t much like people like that, do we? We are British. We stand in queues; we wait for the plate of cake to be passed to us; we say sorry if someone stands on our toe. We do not “do” pushy.
And, I would guess that most of us here have had occasion to pray long and hard and persistently to God for something we badly want but we have not got it. We do not do “pushy” in life and we are not convinced that “pushy” works when it comes to prayer.
What about the other man in the story? The neighbour who is fast asleep, with his wife and children dreaming happily in their beds, only to be woken up by this persistent man who will not stop knocking at the door? The neighbour tells him to go away. This is no time to be bothering us. Come back in the morning. But the man keeps knocking and pleading so much that in the end the neighbour gives in just for the sake of peace and quiet.
We don’t much like people like that either, do we? We look down our noses at parents who say “No” to their children and then, when the children keep on whingeing and whining, finally give in and say “oh alright then. Have your own way.” We think “well, we would not be like with our children, would we?” No comment……
We don’t have a high opinion of men and women who allow themselves to be bullied into doing something that is against their better judgement. And when it comes to prayer, will God really give whatever is asked to those who shout the loudest? That cannot be right.
The mark of a good story is that you can relate to one of the people in the story. But if we cannot relate to either of these, then what is the point of it?
I looked at what came before and what came after. Jesus was talking to people who did not know how to pray. Despite living in a society which was very religious, they asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. They had seen Jesus pray- on his own, in quiet places; in the local synagogue amongst the congregation; as he went out and about and encountered challenging situations. And his followers had seen the difference his prayers made to him. Jesus had amazing powers to heal; he had strength and wisdom in his teaching; he had endless patience with needy people. If this is what prayer does for Jesus, we want some of this. Lord, teach us to pray.
But these were people who had been taught to pray since they were little children. …
Winifred Foley worked as a maid in a Ladies’ College during the nineteen thirties. In those days, domestic servants were still expected to be “invisible” to the people they served. But one of the students was Canadian and not used to the British class system. She started chatting with Winifred and they enjoyed a lively conversation. The next day, Winifred was reprimanded severely for daring to talk with a student. In hurt and anger she deliberately stayed away from Morning Prayers, which were compulsory for staff and students. It was not long before she was back in the Bursar’s office being reprimanded again. Winifred pointed out that if she was not considered fit to talk to students then how could she talk to God? “You do not talk to God. You pray to God.” said the Bursar.
Prayer has always been seen as a vital means of communication between God and human beings. And it is widely acknowledged that one of our most effective means of communication is talking. “It’s good to talk.” Why is there an ever-increasing need for professional Counsellors? Because people need to talk. Why are the Samaritans on call 24/7? Because people need to talk. Why do relationships turn cold and strained? Because the people concerned stop talking to each other.
So, when did “prayer” become something different to “talk?” “You do not talk to God. You pray to God.” Possibly when religion became organised rather than spontaneous; when public worship became more elaborate; when worship leaders used formal speech to give a proper sense of occasion; when religious leaders enjoyed a sensation of power and superiority because only they could understand what they were saying to God- worship was conducted behind a screen and in a language which few of the people beyond the screen could understand?
There is a place for beautifully-crafted ritual in worship. There is a place for the language of poetry, of awe and reverence in church services. It is good to teach our children written prayers that can easily be remembered. All of this was going on in the society of Jesus’ day. I suppose the danger lies in making God remote; someone to whom you only come when you are wearing your best clothes, are on your best behaviour and speak in a language you do not use in your everyday life.
From “remote,” it is only a short step to “irrelevant.’ God becomes someone to whom you pay lip service on a weekly visit and maybe a quick daily ritual to keep Him happy, but he has nothing to do with your job or your finances or your politics or your relationships. You would not dream of “talking’ to God, the way you would talk to your best friend.
From there you end up with a great many people who give up on prayer because either they do not know what to say or they never have enough time to get into the “proper” mood and into the “proper” place.
Jesus was talking to people who did not know how to pray; that is pray in such a way that they were building up a two-way relationship with God; a relationship which was part of every moment of every day.
For a start he gives them what we now know as The Lord’s Prayer. It has become a rather formal set of words, beautifully translated into a poem-like prayer, which can be remembered and passed down from generation to generation. I would not be without it but every now and again-as today- we express what it says in different words so that we can be reminded of what this prayer is actually saying. It is acknowledging God as Father, one who will love to listen; it is acknowledging God as wise and worthy of our love, admitting that He knows best when it comes to the way we live our lives and run our world. We know that we need his help and ask for the things we need day by day: the stuff of life to keep us going; the protection from dangers “out there” and “in here.” We ask for help to keep our relationships healthy. And we ask in hope that all things will be well. So yes, this prayer is real and it is relevant.
From here Jesus goes on in his story to talk about persistence in prayer and I don’t think he is suggesting that we just keep on saying The Lord’s Prayer over and over again, until God is so sick of it that he will give us anything we want. I think he is suggesting that we keep talking to God. Don’t wait for the “right time” and don’t wait for the “right words.’ Just keep talking.
I was reading a story of a Christian man in Vietnam who was imprisoned for his faith and spent several years in a tiny, overcrowded prison cell with some seriously dangerous and disturbed criminals. When he was finally released, he said that prayer, deep prayer of the heart was what had kept him going. But how could he possibly have prayed when he was never alone, never in a quiet and peaceful place, never with anyone who wanted to pray with him? But this man found that, far from distracting him, all the noise, discomfort, fear and misery around him had become the fuel of his prayer, the medium through which he had learned how to pray. The Benedictine monk, who was telling this story said that “the test that your prayer is authentic is learning how to turn everything into prayer. Any scrap of wood is good to feed a fire.”
Can we talk to God about our anger? Can we talk to God about our stress? Can we talk to God about the person who is hurting us? Can we talk to God about our fears for the world? Not just in church on a Sunday; not just in a few hurried moments first thing in the morning or last thing at night but all the time? Can those things which we think are keeping us apart from God actually serve to bring us closer to Him?
How many times have we tried hard to keep something which is bothering us away from our partner or close friend because we don’t want to worry them or don’t want them to think badly of us? And has it helped the relationship? Generally, no. Because the channel of communication is blocked, and the relationship is under strain. And have you ever experienced that huge sense of relief when you have finally told them what is wrong? And has not your relationship become all the closer and stronger for having shared what is going on? If God knows us better than we know ourselves then surely, he will know what we are finding it hard to tell him. And if God loves us more than we can possibly imagine then surely, He will understand and sympathise even more than our nearest and dearest? Just keep talking.
One of my favourite books in the Bible is the book of Psalms. The Psalms are basically a set of prayers; some written to be used in public worship; some private and personal. What I love about them is that they are “real.” No-one has gone through them with a religious editing pen. They are “no holds barred” when it comes to talking to God. They cover everything: fear of dodgy politics; care for the ecological system; people you loved betraying you; anger and frustration at wicked people gaining the upper hand; sleepless nights; bodily and mental sickness; huge guilt at something you have done wrong and cannot put right; the decline of religion; the upbringing of children; the fear of old age; creative gifts and how to use them; even resentment at God because He does not seem to be listening- it is all there. Everything that fills our waking moments is expressed in those Psalms. Clearly there is nothing that cannot be said to God.
And what is remarkable is the number of those Psalms where, having poured out anger, pain or fear, the person praying senses that God is answering. They are shown a way forward. They recover some hope. Their relationship with God becomes stronger.
It is as though, when people believe that they have nothing left to lose when it comes to God; when they drop all pretence at being holy; when they tell it like it is; they are actually opening up the way for God to speak to them.
In the book of Job, next to Psalms, Job has poured out to God all his rage and frustration and bitterness at what life has done to him. God answers more or less by shouting back and asking him who he thinks he is. But at the end of their slanging match Job says in wonder, you know God, once I had only heard about you. But now my eyes see you face to face.
Just keep talking, said Jesus. Don’t give up. Don’t be embarrassed or ashamed of what you say to God. Don’t wait for the “right” time. Just keep talking. And you will receive what it is you need. You will find what it is you are looking for. You will see a door opening in front of you which will be way forward. Because, just as you will give your children good gifts to help them through life, so God will give his Spirit- the power to deal with things; the creative energy to make things new; the peace which brings with it wisdom and hope- to those who ask him.
And this, for many of us, is a starting or re-starting place in our walk with God: the point at which religion becomes real. When God becomes relevant; when prayer is a no-holds-barred conversation; when nothing in life can keep us from God and everything can become a scrap of wood to feed the fire of God’s Spirit.
As St Paul was to write, from the depths of his own turbulent life, “I have become convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present or the future; nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.