Holy Communion Service led by our Minister, to include the Ordination and Induction of Lesley Clare and Clare Veal as Elders of the United Reformed Church, serving in this congregation.
This sermon is taken from Luke 11, verses 1-13
It was my birthday; a special birthday; and a large number of my family were celebrating with me at my father’s house. Everyone had brought food to share for the birthday supper and, as the family started to prepare the meal I found it impossible to remain sitting down. I had to get up and get involved. It is what I do: interfere with what other people are supposed to be doing.
Suddenly I found myself accosted by a stern, nine year old girl.
“Is this party for you?” “Yes, it is.”
“Is it because it is your birthday?” “Yes, it is.”
“Well, why are you doing things then?”
Children have a way of voicing the truth. And the truth is that I was totally unable to relax into a situation in which I was not in charge. I went and sat down again (did not dare not) but I still found it hard to let go.
Human beings have always been what I call “praying creatures.” There has been this sense in us that there is “something other” out there. Rudolf Otto called it “the numinous,” meaning something awesome, something infinitely greater than ourselves, something we cannot explain or ever fully grasp. People have sought to communicate with this “numinous” presence. They have tried to reach out and persuade this power to get involved in their lives. And this, in just about every religion, is what has been called “prayer:” the communicating of lesser beings with a greater being.
Many people in our culture today declare that the age of prayer is over. There is so much about it that simply does not make sense. I mean, there are now scientific reasons for everything that happens. If your food crops fail then you need to look for help to agricultural scientists not to some “god” because it is the scientists who can work out why your crop failed and what you should do to stop it failing again.
If someone you love is seriously ill, then it is to the medical profession you should look because they will know why that person is ill and how they might be cured. It is not up to some “god” to make them better. Even when you do see a “miraculous” recovery that medicine cannot explain, you are still left with that terrible dilemma as to why there are other sufferers, just as well loved and just as fervently prayed for who did not recover. What does that say about your “god?”
Monica Dickens wrote of being a hospital Nurse and although having faith herself, she did get exasperated with one surgeon who, when an operation was going badly, would take a prayer break in the corner of the operating theatre whilst the rest of the team were trying to hold back a haemorrhage. And there are people who feel that prayer is little more than an excuse for doing nothing. “I will pray for you… but I won’t help.”
Then of course, we are frequently “warned off” offering prayer to people we hardly know. Partly because of “political correctness” and a strong anti-religion brigade but partly because prayer can be used and has been used for the exploitation of vulnerable people. It is seen as “hitting them with God” when they are down.
So what do YOU think? Is the age of prayer over? Should it be over? Is prayer a dubious habit? A dangerous habit? A deluded habit? Or does it deserve its place on our list as a Holy Habit? What do you think?
Rudolf Otto looked at many ancient descriptions of what you might call human experience of the “numinous,” one of the most famous of which we find in our own Bible: the story of Jacob’s ladder. Jacob is on the run, having deceived his father and cheated his brother. He is out in the desert with no shelter and lies down to sleep on the stones. To the best of our knowledge he does not belong to any organised religion. Yet as he sleeps he sees a staircase going up to heaven and angels-heavenly messengers- ascending and descending. He hears the voice of one he knows to be God speaking to him. Jacob wakes up and says, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.” Something greater than him, something way beyond his petty fears and jealousies, something vaster than the material wealth he had betrayed his own family to gain was out there, up there, right here in the desert with him. Jacob had not looked for this being; he had barely even believed that such a being existed. But it was there. And there are many stories like this one; found in every culture, every age, every religion and in even in our 21st century scientific Britain tales are still told by men and women with little or no faith experiencing that “something other.”
Cynics may say that such experiences are all to do with something you have eaten… or drunk… or smoked…. Or even that you are suffering from a form of mental illness. And what difference does it make if you experience some kind of “high” but, like Jacob, you wake up the next morning in the same harsh and difficult place? You will still struggle to cope with yourself and your life. You won’t be in some kind of “heaven.” Which means that these kind of experiences could make your life worse rather than better. It is delusion, not truth.
But Otto pointed out that even in the human life of Jesus Christ- a physical life that was undeniably lived out in the real world; a world of toil and sweat and tears; a world in which people let you down; a world of pain and need and heartbreak; Jesus still brought “the numinous” into this life.
For he preached the “kingdom of heaven” and by this he did not mean some far distant realm after death but a kingdom which could be created right here, right now in this world. He taught how the poor could be lifted out of poverty; how those with power could use it justly; how healing could come to the sick; how those with no voice could be helped to speak; how people could forgive others and themselves; how the Spirit of God could fill every human life: not just through “out of the body experiences” but through daily, hourly living. And this is “awe some.” It is not a case of “just be good and everything will be OK.” It is more “live in the power of God and even when everything is not OK; even when you are not OK; you will be in the presence of something far greater and held in a love you cannot begin to imagine.” Jesus preached a totally different way of experiencing life and his followers became known as “saints,”(the holy) not because they were morally superior or exceptionally gifted or spent all their time in church but because they had this sense of participating in the glory and the mystery of God every hour of every day. They were living and working for the kingdom of God and this transfigured everything they did. Everything in life was about something much greater than themselves and their vision was for a world far better than they themselves could ever make it.
Thinking back to my birthday party and my inability to let other people get on with what they were supposed to doing and enjoy what I was supposed to be doing (ie nothing)- I wondered if this might be the root of many problems and cynicism around prayer? Maybe as people have prayed they have got into the habit of “interfering” with God; trying to persuade him to work to our agenda, to do things our way. And surely, if we are talking about the kingdom of heaven, it should be the other way around?
If you read many of the prayers written down in the Bible, they voice a great deal of what people think should be happening. Prayers for justice and peace. Prayers for a good harvest. Prayers for protection in dangerous times. Prayers for the safety and wellbeing of their families. Prayers for healing when they are sick. Now there is nothing wrong with any of these prayers. They arise from naturally loving and responsible hearts. They are about things vitally important to us and surely a loving God will care about this?
Yes, of course he will. It is just that sometimes you notice these prayers taking a dangerous turn: when prayers for justice and peace and plenty turn into prayers for the peace and prosperity of our nation even if these come at the expense of other races. When prayers for safety become prayers for deadly vengeance on the people who are threatening or hurting you. When prayers for your own family become elitist- if my family are all well-behaved and trouble free then, “thank-you God because you obviously think more of me than you do of my neighbour with the stroppy teenager. And prayers for healing become seriously destructive when you conclude that those who are not healed must have somehow done something terribly wrong and lost God’s favour.
Our own Agenda can so easily take over our prayer. What we want becomes so important and we say it so frequently and so fervently that we stop listening. And we get that we are still talking incessantly-maybe this was what Jesus meant when he used the word “babbling”- but we are actually walking away from God and we are talking to ourselves. Terrible things have happened and still happen in the name of religion because people of faith have convinced themselves that what they want has to be what God wants and that what they pray for has to be on God’s Agenda because it is on ours. Not “thy kingdom come” but “our kingdom come.”
One of the most powerful passages about prayer-in my opinion- is the story of Elisha and his servant who were stranded in a city surrounded by military troops sent by a hostile King to capture them. The servant is, understandably terrified. And Elisha prays, “Lord, open his eyes.” Then the servant looks and is able to see the hills filled with chariots and horses of fire- a heavenly host, far greater than the King’s troops. One way or another, they will be safe.
Prayer is, I think, not so much about what happens around us but about what happens inside us. It is about us opening ourselves to God. The real power in prayer is what it does to us, even when we are praying for others. Prayer is about letting God open our eyes to see what He is doing; opening our ears to hear the truth He is telling; opening our hearts to receive the love he is offering; opening our lives to be filled with the Spirit he has promised.
Jesus said, “If you know how to give good things to your children, do you not think that God will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?” But the gift of the Holy Spirit is not what everyone wants. For the Holy Spirit will inspire us and encourage us to work to God’s Agenda, not ours. But for those who do receive this gift, it fills our lives with the glory of God. We do not always see the chariots of fire- our eyes get tired- but we do hold on to the belief that they are there and so we live and work in hope for the world.
Back near the beginning of this year, the members of this church were asked to pray and to ask God to show them the people He was calling to be Elders in this church. Thankfully there were those with faith enough and who prayed enough for Clare and Lesley to be nominated as Elders and to accept the nomination. Thank-you all who took part in this.
Elders, as we shall hear, need many gifts and strengths in order to do their work but perhaps the most important gift of all is belief in the power of prayer. For what they are called to is the work of God and if our own Agendas start to take precedence over the vision God has for this church, then things will go very wrong.
In thirty four years of ministry, I have lost count of the number of plans and projects and schemes that Elders’ Meetings have produced and which have come to nothing. But I have also lost count of the number of difficult situations and disappointed hopes that have been shared and prayed through in an Elders’ Meeting; when we have more or less given up trying to interfere and allowed God to get on with things and the results have been amazing.
I would like to be able to say that being an Elder is all about sitting still and doing nothing but I fear you would not believe me and it is not true anyway. But the resources needed to be an Elder come from prayer and prayer is above all else, about being still and receiving God. The greatest of creative or theological or organisational or energetic skills will achieve nothing worthwhile without the Spirit of God infusing and directing them. Let prayer be focussed first and foremost on God, allowing our lives to be transformed by Him and everything else will fall into place.
“Prayer” wrote Andrew Roberts, the author of Holy Habits, “re orientates us in a right relationship with God, with those we love and with the world. It is a holy and transformative habit.”