Dangers on the Way
Morning Service led by our Minister
This sermon is taken from James 5, verses 13-16; Mark 9, verses 30-41
Dangers on the Way
It has to be said that prayer presents us with a lot of unanswered questions.
I was thinking this week, of two people I have known well.
One was a colleague of mine, a strong, capable elderly lady, one of the first women ever to be ordained as a Minister. She had been widowed very young and left with two little girls to bring up on her own. Generally she was very brave and upbeat about life but in a sermon she preached to mark the sixtieth anniversary of her ordination, she told us of the time when, not long after her husband’s death, she saw a group of young men, probably well fuelled with drink, smashing up the children’s playground in the town. She asked “Why?” “Why are those destructive vandals alive when my good, Christian, Doctor, Scout leader husband is dead?” Prayers had been made in abundance for his recovery. So why could God have not allowed him to live and continue with all the good he was doing?
The second was a man in his early seventies. When I first met him he had just made what even the Doctors called a miraculous recovery from a very advanced bowel cancer. He was thrilled and thankful to be alive but I can see him now with tears streaming down his cheeks, asking “why me?” A young man in our church, aged only 38 had just died of cancer. For both men, prayers had been made day and night. “So why me?” wept the older man. “Why was I allowed to live and he to die?”
We face a lot of these questions, don’t we? Indeed, we ask them ourselves. That letter written by James, the brother of Jesus, stated quite clearly that if someone is ill, the prayers of the church will bring healing; if someone is in trouble, prayer will save them; if someone is doing wrong, prayer will put them right. But is this our experience? Not always. We pray for people who are seriously ill to be healed. Some are; some are not. We pray for our loved ones to be safe from trouble or sin. Sometimes they are saved. Sometimes they are not. We pray for a social or political situation that is causing a lot of fear or injustice. Sometimes it is resolved. Sometimes it is not. Hundreds of years before Christianity, the Psalmist wrote of how he lay awake night after night in fear and pain. He soaked his pillow with tears and cried to God for help but God did not seem to be listening. Why not?
Sometimes, admittedly, we come to realise that what we prayed for would not have been right and God knew best. But not always. There are some disappointed prayers we never come to terms with. And nor should we. For my colleague to have said, “maybe it was all for the best that my husband died and my children lost their father” would have been a total denial of her great love and her great loss. For Christians to say, well God must have had a good reason for the Holocaust in which 6 million Jews died” would be a total denial of our own humanity and our most basic sense of justice.
No, prayer presents us with a lot of unanswered questions, which is why so many people, understandably give up on it altogether and if we are going to explore this Holy Habit of Prayer, then we need to confront the question of why prayer does not always work in the way we believe it should?
As I pondered this dilemma, I started wondering if we were actually asking the right question here. Maybe we should not be asking “why does not prayer always work in the way we believe it should?” but rather “why do we expect prayer always to work in the way we believe it should? “
Our Gospel reading highlights three of the big issues in religion that Jesus had to deal with.
In this reading, he was preaching to people who believed in God, tried to live good lives and took their religion seriously. But there were big issues:
One, the issue of power. Jesus was telling his followers that, in order to fulfil his ministry of reconciling people to God, he would have to become helpless. He would have to surrender himself to his enemies and allow them to take his life. But his followers simply did not get it. They carried on walking, discussing which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom of God. For them, religious life worked in exactly the same way as political life. It was all about power; who was the greatest and who had the most clout. The kingdom of God, as they saw it, would look exactly like the Empire of Rome, only Jesus would be sitting on the Emperor’s throne and they would be sitting beside him in the positions of power. Power has always been a huge issue in religion. We want to be in charge. We want to rule the world, admittedly so that we can make it a better place. We want to make absolute pronouncements. We want to impose unbreakable rules. We want to look like a holier version of Julius Caesar. Taken to extremes, this lust for power produces the corrupt and greedy cult leaders who fleece their followers of millions of pounds; it produces the “prophets” who inspire their followers to kill and destroy; it produces the Spanish Inquisition and when faith leaders work hand in hand with political leaders there tend to be more faith leaders who become corrupt than monarchs who become holy.
Jesus tries to counteract this issue of power by referring to the second of the big issues: exclusion. When he placed a little child before them, he was not creating a “cute” moment: “dear little soul. Would it not be nice if we could all be like that again.” Children were not considered “cute” in his culture. They were actually “non-people.” They did not officially exist until they were 13 or 14. Naturally, good parents loved and cared for their children and devout parents taught their children about faith. But children had no voice of their own, nothing to contribute, no clout in the faith community. The same could be said of women, tax officials, publicans, Gentiles (non-Jews), any foreigner. They simply did not count. Exclusion can be a dangerous thing in religion. It promotes hatred and violence between groups of people who have never actually met each other but have been told that the other is the enemy. It leads to narrowmindedness as the same small, exclusive group keep their faith to themselves and never allow it to be tested or developed in a wider world.
Which leads to the third issue: monopoly. Jesus’ followers saw someone “casting out demons” which, in their culture, meant curing a sufferer from any kind of illness. They told him to stop because he was not officially recognised by them, the exclusive group around Jesus. It’s all about power and control again, isn’t it? We say whose gifts are acceptable to God and whose are not. We say whose prayers are valid and whose are not. Religion is drained of adventure, of joy, of love. It denies the God who makes all things new. It expects to know everything and to be in charge of everything, including prayer. We say how you pray. We say when you pray. And we say how your prayer will be answered because we have put ourselves in the place of God. Jesus is telling his disciples that this does not work but they are very slow to “get it.”
You see, the problem with power is that it refuses to admit to the mystery of life: the fact that you can never be quite sure what is going to happen. Jesus told several famous little parables about farmers sowing seeds, hoping to reap a good harvest. And the one thing that comes across in every single story is mystery. No farmer can ever be quite sure what is going to happen to his crop; what might happen to threaten it or what might happen to make it grow. Even today, when we understand so much more about agricultural science, there is still that element of mystery- what will the weather do? Where might the next pest come from? Can disease be kept at bay from livestock? There is nothing in the Bible that approves of lazy, incompetent farmers but a farmer who believes that he or she has total control over what happens to their crops is a fool.
At the URC Ministers’ Conference last May we were told about this music guru called Benjamin Zander. His method, when starting out with a new group of music students is to tell them all that they are A* musicians. Tell them they are brilliant and they will be brilliant. I thought he was great. I watched him on Youtube. And I honestly think that if that kind of technique had been used by the teachers at my school, I would have done a lot better. It would have worked for me. But only a short while ago, I was talking to the mother of a teenager whose school had predicted top grades for all his GCSE subjects and this boy was freaking out. The pressure was just too great. Human beings are not machines. What works for one will not necessarily work for another. You cannot predict how they will react or how they will develop as a result of those reactions. The political power wielded by the Roman Emperors led them to believe that no-one would ever be strong enough or brave enough or unwise enough to challenge them. And their failure to allow for the mystery that is human nature led to the downfall of the whole empire.
When you embark on a journey into a totally unknown place, the worst thing you can do is to assume that you know exactly what will happen and where you might end up. Going into the unknown means being prepared for the unknown; allowing for the fact that you do not know, you cannot know precisely what will happen or how what happens will affect you.
There is huge danger in believing that we have got everything taped.
So why should prayer be any different? Why should we think that, as we seek to communicate with a God who is greater and vaster than anything we can imagine, that we can expect to know what will happen?
This may sound suspiciously like a cop-out. When people are hurt and angry because their prayers for healing, for justice have apparently not worked, we say, “oh well, it is all about the great mystery of life and God. We cannot understand these things.”
Maybe it is a cop-out. All I can say is that for every person I have met who is simply cynical about the value of prayer, I have met at least one if not two more who have been deeply hurt by faith leaders who thought they should an explanation for their disappointed prayers: maybe they did not have enough faith; maybe not enough prayers were said; maybe those who prayed did not have enough confidence in God; maybe God was giving not what they wanted but what they really needed; maybe this was some kind of punishment. Is that what people really need to hear? And does it bring them closer to God?
Last Sunday the Explorers demonstrated what we called “A Prayer Hunt,” showing how life constantly presented us with mountains- high challenges; forests- dark, confusing places; oceans- situations beyond our control; rivers- new places to reach. It was a very fair picture of what real life is like for each one of us. And in each situation we were invited to stop and pray. And the prayer was not that God would make the mountain go away or miraculously float us over the river. In each case the prayer was that God would be with us and that God would move us forward. The purpose of prayer was that we would come to know God a little better every day. Maybe that is all we can ask of prayer- whether we are praying for ourselves or for those we love or for the world- that it will bring us closer to God.
Do you remember the story of Job? He was a truly good, devoutly religious man whose life was shattered when he lost nearly all his money, nearly all his family and his health cracked up completely. He kept asking, “why? Why has God allowed these things to happen to me? Why did God not rescue me and my family when disaster struck? Why does God not answer my prayers for help?”
And Job’s friends suggested all the things religious people who want power suggest: Job had done something wrong and God was punishing him; Job would one day be offered an explanation by God and until then he must be patient; maybe Job had not had enough faith or had not given enough money to the church.
Job cannot buy into any of this. He just keeps praying that God will answer him; that God will tell him what this is all about. In the end Job and God do actually have a confrontation and yell at each other. (Most strong believers will admit to having had at least one slanging match with God.) And the end result is that Job says, “before now I had only heard of you. But now my eyes see you.” He is not given an explanation. He is not offered a formula to make his prayers in the future achieve exactly what he thinks they should. But he is brought right into the very presence of God and that is where he most needs to be.
So is prayer a worthwhile habit? Even though it can confuse and disappoint us?
We may not find that we get to know all the answers but we do come close to the wisdom at the very heart of life.
We may not find that we ever understand or come to terms with our disappointed hopes but we do find ourselves held in the love that is greater than the darkest sin and the pain of death.
We may not see the results we have prayed for in our lifetime but we can trust that no faith or goodness or love is ever lost in God’s eternal purpose.
We may, like the Psalmist, drench our pillow with tears and cry out to God, with no sense that He is there but we can believe that the peace which passes all our understanding will keep holding us until we are able to recognise it for ourselves.
Prayer, as I said to the children, is about inviting God to get involved in our lives.
It changes us. And that is all I can say. Hopefully it is all I need to say.