Sermons & services
Sermon for Trinity III
Published Sunday 20th June 2021, at 1:50 p.m.
I always love the Collect, or Opening Prayer, for this Sunday because it always makes me want to ask you all the question: you do have a hearty desire to pray, don’t you? Don’t you? Remember, when Jesus introduces his followers to the Lord’s Prayer, he doesn’t say if you pray, but when you pray. So there is a clear understanding on the part of the Jesus that His followers will pray. And in so doing, they are following the pattern of Jesus Himself. So I thought it might be helpful to spend this Sunday in thinking about how we pray, and how we might improve our prayer life by looking at the example of Jesus. A couple of things before we start, though. The first thing to say about prayer is that it’s not simply a divine 999 service when things go pear shaped. It can be that at times, but that’s not what it is truly about. Next, prayer does not create God’s presence with us, like making the genie appear when you rub the lamp. Rather, it makes us aware that He is already present with us. Even when everything seems empty, faith tells us we can be certain that God is with us. He cannot fail, however badly we might fail. The next thing to say is that prayer is God’s work in us. As George Herbert put in his poem called Prayer: it is God's breath in man returning to his birth. God is always in the beginning. All things come from God, including the gift of prayer. As St Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome: Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. This should be a great comfort to all of us, because if we are honest, quite a few of us struggle with prayer: how to do it, when and where to do it. One last thing. Prayer, though often communal, is also intensely personal. As with any relationship, it’s not just about looking at someone over there: it is about living with them, being with them. It is about sharing our life and all our reasons for living with another. It is about becoming inseparable: forming a bond so close that we can no longer see ourselves without that Other, we can no longer truly be ourselves without that Other. So how did Jesus pray and what can it tell us in a way that will help our prayers lives? Firstly, we have to remember that Jesus was Jewish and that Jewish forms of prayer would have been the staple of his prayer diet. That means that synagogue worship was deeply a part of his prayer life. And that means that one of the ways Jesus would have prayed would have been with the Book of Psalms. We know this because Jesus quoted from them. For instance, His words on the Cross – My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me? – are from Psalm 22. The Psalms are a vital part of our prayer arsenal. They cover the whole range of human emotion: praise, blessing, thanksgiving, sorrow, contrition, even anger and cursing. St Ambrose said this: What is more pleasing than a psalm? David expresses it well: "Praise the Lord, for a psalm is good: let there be praise of our God with gladness and grace!" Yes, a psalm is a blessing on the lips of the people, praise of God, the assembly's homage, a general acclamation, a word that speaks for all, the voice of the Church, a confession of faith in song. And even though we may not be feeling that particular emotion at that particular time, you can bet your bottom dollar that somewhere in the world, someone is. And so the members of the Body of Christ pray for one another in all their different conditions. In pre-Reformation monasteries – and still in some today – they recited all 150 psalms over the course of a week. Cranmer changed that to a month. And if you want to know where to start to pray, I would recommend the Prayer Book service of Morning and Evening Prayer. This service of prayer is often called the school of prayer, because the psalms are a wonderful teacher of prayer. Now sometimes, during the course of those prayers, some word of phrase from the psalms or the scriptures may cause you to pause for a moment. So do it. Pause. Because that word or phrase may be God’s word to you at that moment: God speaking to you. Heart speaking to heart. And so sit in silence for a while with that phrase. Just stop and rest in the presence of God. Because, again, we know that this is something Jesus did. Jesus took himself off to be alone in the silent presence of the Father’s love. We live in a world of noise, and so carving out times and spaces for silence is really important. It needn’t be for long: five or ten minutes. But it’s just time for us and God just to be together. No words. Just silence. Resting in the presence of that Other: that God in whom we live and move and have our being. We also know that Jesus gave praise and thanksgiving to God and this, too, should be part of our prayer. When something good happens to us or others: say thank you. When you become aware of the wonder and glory of God: give praise. When we mess up: say sorry. When we see or hear of others in need: pray for them. There and then. Straight away. Never put it off. And then there’s saying grace before and after meals. We know Jesus did this, too, and it used to be something one saw in many households. So even if you’re out and about, in the company of those who aren’t Christians, all of us can spend a moment of recollection, giving thanks, before we tuck in. We should re-read the Lord’s Prayer, too. After all, this was the prayer Jesus taught His followers, and that would imply it sums up His own attitude to and content of prayer. We should pray it daily. Ideally, according to one very early Christian document called the Didache, we should pray it three times a day, at morning, noon, and evening. Jesus’s relationship with His Father was one of deepest intimacy, joy and praise. But most of all, Jesus prayed with faith, and hope, and love. He knew the Father heard His prayers and would respond. This should be our goal as believers: to pray as Jesus prayed.