I was in a meeting this week when we started talking about communication and particularly the language we use in church. Every group, every organisation has its own words which are shorthand and the rest of us are expected to catch up. Anyone who’s spent time in schools knows education is full of them, and acronyms too. The financial press has these – ESGs for investments – where the criteria is Ethical, Social and Governance for determining the moral probity of a company. The more we get steeped in the world of the church and the Christian faith, the more we forget what we’ve learnt and come to take as normal, and therefore how this is just mysterious at best, gobbledegook to anyone looking in from outside.
Perhaps one word that falls into this category that may surprise you, which came up in the conversation, is ‘prayer’. The idea being put forward was that many don’t know what we mean by prayer. They may have heard it, but come at it with all sorts of assumptions which may be profoundly unhelpful. So our notice outside talks about ‘prayer and reflection’, to open up rather than narrow down.
Actually this shouldn’t surprise us. Prayer does come with all sorts of baggage about how you do it, what you are doing when you do it, what you expect to come out of it, and what words to use. Jesus’ first followers were no different and in our Gospel reading we get them asking him to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1-13). It’s not entirely clear whether this was ignorance – they were devout Jews after all, so would have prayed before, grown up with it – or if they were wanting a specific intention, treating prayer as a kind of magic to make something happen. The reference to John the Baptist may well be that they wanted a radical prayer of liberation and justice, of prophetic challenge and announcement of the restoration of the political state. Did they want a messianic figure to rise up to take on the Romans; to drive them out of their land, and the prayer would be a rallying cry for that?
What they get in Luke’s version, is a very short form of what we now call the Lord’s Prayer: it praises God, seeks God’s kingdom, asks for food, forgiveness and we need to forgive too, and protection from whatever the time of trial is. It begins by addressing God as Father, which presses all sorts of buttons from their history – in the Old Testament Israel is described as God’s son, so to call God Father is to plug into this and identify with being God’s special people – chosen, liberated and established. And it goes back to Abraham in our first reading (Genesis 18), by those Oaks of Mamre, being blessed by the visitors with the promise of multiple generations flowing from him and his wife Sarah, and this comes in the face of a place of corruption and vice down the road at Sodom. The result of the diminishing confidence in finding just 10 righteous people is that only Lot, his wife and two daughters were found to be righteous, and even Lot’s wife ends up being turned into a pillar of salt for turning back to gaze on where they had left, a reference perhaps to not actually having turned her back on it. The place is destroyed.
Prayer is not magic. It is to align ourselves with the will of God. And there is a much deeper tradition than a shopping list of requests. The passage begins with Jesus praying and we don’t know what that meant – he might have used words, he may have been in silent stillness and oneness with the fullness of God, lost in contemplation. But the words he gives are about resetting the focus and purpose. If you want to be forgiven, then forgiving others is part of the deal. Whatever your desires, the deepest one must be for God – seek first the kingdom of God. The examples sound like a shopping list, but the true prize comes at the end with the gift of the Holy Spirit. And I spoke about the Holy Spirit being the great disrupter at Pentecost – what we expect or want is not what the Holy Spirit tends to bring. Be careful what you pray for.
This coming week, bishops from across the Anglican Communion, from around the world, will gather at the University of Kent at Canterbury for the Lambeth Conference. Our own bishops will be there too – though they are having to stay outside of the main campus because Cherry and Wendy are not allowed to be together in the main conference accommodation. They decided as a block they were not playing that game and booked a hotel together off the campus. When we pray for unity, for the Anglican Communion, what are we hoping for? There are some profound differences within the Anglican Communion and they stretch it to its limits of accommodation. There are those, like our own province here in Wales, that are openly affirming of same sex relationships, offering blessings. Some, like Scotland and the United States, conduct same sex marriages. And there are others who believe this is the greatest sin that there is and want to rule it out – they have even proposed a re-affirmation of a previous resolution from 1998 to do this. That resolution was divisive at the time and it is ridiculous to think nothing has changed in the time since. It is a mischief motion or ‘call’ as they call them. Our bishops, along with the Scottish bishops, have issued a statement calling for this to be changed.
When we pray for unity, for brothers and sisters across the world in very different places, we open ourselves to will of God, to the purpose of God, and that always takes us to strange places. With the gift of the Holy Spirit, it makes connections that we otherwise don’t see. And when we disagree, the Holy Spirit has more chance of working on us if we actually engage and relate, enter into conversations that include listening more than talking, listening to the reality of lives, to what life looks like from that other person’s place. It is then that grace can start to work on us and between us.
The disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray. They may well have had a specific expectation of what that might have looked like. Instead, he gives them something that says start with God and how God has called us all by name, told us we are his beloved children, and as a loving father has perhaps a better grasp than we do. He tells them to seek God’s kingdom above their own, above their own prejudices and preconceived ideas. He prayers for bread, the staple of life, for forgiveness for ourselves and those who hurt us, and to pray that God will strengthen us when life is trying – what one priest once called ‘extra grace required’ moments.
The greatest gift, the greatest answer to pray we can receive is the Holy Spirit. May that Spirit strengthen us, sustain us and change us to seek God’s Kingdom first, last and always.
Sermon for Trinity 6, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 24th July 2022