Essentials of Prayer

October 24, 2010

(2 Timothy 4, 6-8 &  16-18; Luke 18, 9-14)

Imagine the scene. It is either dawn or mid-afternoon and the sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people of Israel is being offered in the Temple in Jerusalem. As the proper time arrives, the great gates are opened and the people stream in to witness the sacrifice and to offer prayers to God.

There is the smell of many people; of the lamb who is sacrificed; of warm blood as it is splashed on the altar, then the smell of smoke and burning meat as the sacrifice is burnt on the altar, and of the incense as it is placed on the coals and rises towards the heavens.

There are the sounds of the animals  and birds used for sacrifice, of cymbals and bells and trumpets that punctuate the ritual, of many voices speaking their prayers aloud as the incense rises.

Into this scene walk two men. They are both well dressed. Both take care to stand apart from all the other worshippers. But their attitudes are very different.

One man is a Pharisee, a leader and teacher of the faithful. He is careful to stand a distance from all the other worshippers. He must be careful to keep himself untainted by any contact with ‘the people of the land’, those who cannot or do not keep themselves ritually clean; even to brush his coat against their clothes would destroy his state of ritual cleanliness.

He stands erect and full of confidence as he addresses his prayer to the Almighty. As he looks around him, he notices the the other man also standing apart, and uses him as an example. He makes his own assessment of his morality, and it is not a kind one; he brands him a rogue and a swindler – and then throws in adulterer for good measure. He is attacking a stereotype, and does not see beyond his own prejudiced image.   His prayer turns into a statement of his own religious superiority to everyone else there. He thanks God briefly, but then goes on to distinguish himself from  the ‘great unwashed’ around him, boasting of doing more than the law demands by fasting and tithing more than is required.

The other man, the tax collector, stands apart from the others, not to keep himself unsullied, but because he feels himself unworthy to be among the faithful of Israel. As he too prays aloud, he doesn’t dare lift his eyes from the ground, even to watch the incense ascending, or the priest blessing. He beats his chest (a gesture which was usually done only by women as they mourned a death) to show his anguish and distress at his own unworthiness to offer any prayer to God. When he finally voices his prayer, it is a simple cry to God: “Lord, have mercy on me” or “Lord, make atonement for me”. He has come to pray at the time of the sacrifice, because he believes only the sacrifice of a perfect creature can atone for his sins.

At the end of the ritual, the two men leave, along with everyone else. Perhaps outwardly there is no difference. But, as Jesus tells their story, he reverses the order in which he describes them. The tax-collector, who showed contrition and humility is spoken of first. His prayer has been answered; he has been forgiven and he is justified and judged righteous. The Pharisee who felt himself so superior, is placed second now; his own self-righteousness has hardened his heart; because he is so confident in his own actions, he is not open to God’s grace. HIs attendance at the sacrifice was a waste of time. He returns in exactly the same state as he went up, unjustified and unforgiven.

As Luke’s introduction to the parable makes plain, it is first of all about our the inner attitude of the disciple. The attitude of superiority to others shown by the Pharisee in this parable was criticised by others in Jesus’ time. The Assumption of Moses contained similar sentiments to the parable and Rabbi Hillel wrote: “Keep not aloof from the congregation and trust not in thyself until the day of thy death, and judge not thy fellow until thou art thyself come to his place.”

According to Luke, this parable was told to the disciples on the way to Jerusalem. Throughout this journey, Jesus is shown as trying to teach his disciples about Kingdom values. Chief among those values is an attitude of humility, of service to others, of acknowledging everyone’s equal reliance on the grace of God. In the parables he uses to highlight these values, he uses some strange chief characters – a Samaritan, an unjust steward, a nagging widow – and now a tax collector. A faithful Jewish male would have considered himself superior to all of these – but Jesus uses each of them as an example of what God regards as worthy.

Perhaps in Luke’s church there were also people who regarded themselves as more righteous, more worthy of God’s ear, more certain of salvation than others in their congregation. We know that the early church was made up of Jews and Gentiles, of men and women, of rich and poor. This parable may have been included by Luke to bring them up short and make them think again about their attitudes.

And what of today’s Church? In churches, as in all human institutions, there is a tendency for people to reject others, and to try to keep themselves separate from those who  (they think!) fail to meet the standards that God requires. We seem to have particular problems with this in the Anglican Church at the moment. We have provinces in the worldwide Anglican Communion who refuse to attend meetings with representatives of other provinces where gay people have been elected as bishops by their congregations, or where gay couples have been offered church blessings on their partnerships. In the Church of England itself, we have groups setting up ‘societies’ within the church, to ensure they can worship separately from those who wish to admit women to the role of Bishop, as well as from those who won’t accept women bishops for different theological reasons.

Aren’t these actions the modern equivalent of standing by yourself before the altar of sacrifice and pulling your cloak tightly around you lest you become contaminated by those you have judged to be wrong? Are not these groups in danger of basing their confidence on their own right actions, as the Pharisee did, rather than acknowledging that all our hopes are based on the life and death of Christ and the grace of God? Kierkegaard said  “The self-assured believer is a greater sinner in the eyes of God than the troubled disbeliever”.

But the parable is also about the right way to pray. The rabbinic  documents of the time gave instructions about how a worshipper should pray at the time of the morning or evening sacrifice. He should stand with his hands crossed over his chest and his eyes to the ground, in an attitude of submission to a master or lord. He should first of all articulate praise to God for all his gifts, and then present his own needs.

The Pharisee did neither. He praised God only that he wasn’t like other less worthy people; he didn’t present any petitions to God, since he obviously thought he had everything already. He boasts about his own actions, which go way beyond what is required by the Law. He is the man who has everything – so he really has no need of God. His prayer, though on the surface a thanks to God, is in fact just a request that God confirms his own assessment of himself as righteous.

What’s more, he judges others by their outward appearance, and projects his own prejudices on to them.

In contrast, the tax collector has no illusions about himself. He knows his occupation automatically puts him outside the circle of the faithful. He beats upon his chest, the place where evil thoughts and emotions were thought to come from at the time, and requests nothing based on his own merits. He does not criticise others, not even the Pharisee who is publicly humiliating him in front of a crowd of worshippers. In his prayer he presents just one petition to God and throws himself entirely on the divine mercy; and because God is merciful, his petition is granted.

Luke places a great emphasis on prayer in his gospel. At every significant moment in the story, prayer is offered to God. He also places great emphasis on the outcast and the sinner, alerting us to Jesus’ message that they are often closer to God than those who think themselves ‘religious’.

How does this story relate to our practice of prayer? Do we begin each time of prayer with giving praise and thanks to God for all we have been given – or do we rush immediately into asking for what we want. Do we recognise our own inadequacies and need of mercy, or do our prayers assume that God operates with the same prejudices and stereotypes as we do? It is a particular danger in public prayer; we often pray only for ‘people like us’. In our prayers we sometimes act like the Pharisee, condemning those who are different. This can have a devastating effect on those who hear us: I recently read an article by a non-believer who put aside her own feelings to attend a family christening, only to be confronted by someone leading the prayers who asked God to help ‘fight against the rise of secularism and aggressive atheists’, who wanted to stop him worshipping and destroy Christianity – which was far from what this woman wanted.

But such attitudes also have the effect of taking us further from the presence of God, rather than closer, as prayer should do. Self-righteousness, particularly when it involves projecting the darker side of ourselves onto others, closes our innermost being to the grace of God. The essence of prayer is to stand before God  in a state of spiritual nakedness, to acknowledge what we have been given by God’s grace with heartfelt thanks, to reflect how far we still are  from what God would have us be, and to trust only in the justice and mercy of God, and in the justification that has been won for us through Jesus Christ.

With that attitude, Jesus’ parable tells us, the tax collector went home justified, made right with God. With that attitude, our reading from 2 Timothy tells us, Paul faced his coming trial and death with confidence and equanimity.

With that attitude, we have begun to master the essentials of prayer, and with it, we can go on learning to become closer and closer to God.

Persisting in Prayer

October 17, 2010

(Proper 23. Year C. Genesis 32, 22-31; Luke 18, 1-8)

Noel Coward wrote in one of his plays: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”. I think many of us know the truth of that. A line from a popular song can take us back instantly to our childhood or adolescence, or remind us of a particular event. But it works the other way too; something we see or read brings a song into our mind, and we struggle to get rid of it.

I’ve had a particular song on the brain this week, as I’ve been preparing to preach on the parable of The Judge and the Widow. It’s not a proper pop song, but a take off by the Two Ronnies of a Status Quo hit ‘I’m a Wanderer’. They turned it into a song about a nagging wife, with lines like “She nags at me in public so I feel a proper berk. She likes to nag me lunchtimes, so she rings me up at work” and the chorus goes “I’m fond of her, so very fond of her, but she goes on and on, and on, and on, and on and on and on”.

You can see why a story about a woman who nagged at a judge until he gave her justice brought that song back into my mind!

This parable has parallels with a passage in the Book of Ben Sirach in the Apocrypha, or Ecclesiasticus as it is often known.(35, 15-19).There the writer speaks of a widow who cries for justice, and affirms that the prayers of the righteous will be heard by God, and the prayer of the humble will be answered. Ben Sirach also promises that God will come without delay and describes the punishment the Almighty will inflict on the unmerciful and the Gentiles. But although Jesus may have had this passage in mind when he told this parable, his version concentrates on the petitioner, and lacks any description of vengeance or punishment for the unrighteous.

This is another of the parables with very strange central characters. There is the judge who has the reputation (and admits it himself) of having no fear of God or respect for man.  He had no fear of God, although judges were supposed to be administering justice on behalf of God, because he did not keep the tradition which said in Israel a judge should always hear the cases of orphans first and widows next, because they had no family to plead their case for them. He had no respect for people (the adjective used says he felt no shame before people) because like so many judges at the time, he was corrupt. A  contemporary of Jesus wrote that the judges in Jerusalem were known as Dayyaney Gezeloth, which means robber judges, instead of Dayyaney Gezeroth, the proper name, which means judges of prohibition. This judge could be bribed, and gave justice to the person who paid him most, rather than administering the law fairly.

On the other hand, there is a widow, who nags at the judge until she gets the judgement she wants. She would not have been a respected figure in Bible times, since she did not behave as a woman was supposed to. In the first place, women did not go to courts or take any part in public life. Ordinarily, there would have been a male relative to plead her case for her, a son or brother or cousin, but obviously in this case she was totally alone.

But even so, she should have found someone to act for her, or quietly accepted her fate. A woman who spoke loudly, and especially one who nagged, was often criticised in the Scriptures. Proverbs 21.9 says “It is better to live on the roof top than share a house with a nagging wife” and 27.15 “a nagging woman is as annoying as the constant dripping on a wet day”. But this widow was destitute and alone: not only did she have no-one to plead her cause, she obviously had no money with which to bribe the judge. It is likely that the case concerned money or inheritance, since that was the only sort of case which one judge could hear alone. This widow had nothing but her voice to make her case known and get justice for herself. Like the judge, she had no shame, and was prepared to suffer social disapproval to achieve her ends.

And, eventually, her nagging wore the judge down. He did not fear violence from her, but her persistence convinced him that she would never give up – so in order to get himself some peace and go back to his comfortable life, he gives her justice. Although at the beginning of the parable the widow’s situation seemed hopeless, because she never gave up she got what she wanted.

The introduction to the parable tells us that is  about persistence in prayer. The message is, if this poor and powerless woman’s needs are met because of her persistence, so also will the appeals of the faithful believers, if they continue to pray to God.

But the parable is still puzzling. Are we meant to conclude that God is an unjust judge, who will only hear our prayers if we bribe him or nag him continually about what we want him to do for us? That is clearly not the picture Jesus gave us of God, our heavenly Father.

Sometimes in parables there is a direct parallel between the earthly and the heavenly. These are often introduced with the formula “The kingdom of Heaven is like”. But other parables draw a contrast between the two, as in this case. If even an unjust judge will eventually give a persistent petitioner what she needs, the parable says, how can we doubt that God, who is a loving and merciful judge, will act in the best interests of those who believe in him, if they continue to have faith and pray.

The last two verses of the passage expand on this. ‘Will God not grant justice to his chosen ones?” “Of course he will” the faithful need to answer. “Will God delay in coming to help”. “No, he won’t” is the answer of faith.

But then comes the usual sting in the tail. The parable is meant to bring comfort and encouragement to those who have faith in God – but it also challenges them: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”.

So we come back again to the question of faith, as we do so often in the Jerusalem document, (the teaching which Luke places during the final journey of the disciples with Jesus to the Holy City where he will suffer and die). And now it is coupled with a  question about prayer.

Many of us have problems with prayer. For many, perhaps, the picture we get from the Old Testament reading, of Jacob struggling with God all night, and ending up battered and wounded, is a fairly accurate picture of our experience of prayer.  For some it is a struggle with no obvious beneficial outcome, so in the end they give up.

Prayer,  and particularly intercessory prayer, is an enormous topic, and it would be impossible to cover it adequately in this address.  But in the light of the parable, perhaps I can share some thoughts  about what intercessory prayer is, and is not.

It is not a shopping list of demands that we present to God. So often, we never get beyond the concept of prayer that sees it as a heavenly version of a child’s letter to Father Christmas, or an Amazon wish-list. Persistent prayer is not nagging at a reluctant relative till they eventually give in. It is sharing our needs with a loving parent, who knows already what they are, and is more than ready to help us.

It is not an emergency phone call. Many people only turn to prayer when they have exhausted everything else. Persistent prayer is something that we practise all the time, not something we save for when we are in dire straits.

It is not a one-way conversation. Jacob is pictured as struggling with God, because the reality of prayer is that there are two wills involved – God’s will and ours. But often prayer only seems to involve us trying to influence God’s will. We pray as if God is like the unjust judge, and we need to offer bribes (“if you will only let me pass this exam. I’ll go to church every Sunday”) or make as much noise as we can (“if only we can get everyone in your church/town/country joining us in this day of prayer, God will hear us”) for our prayer to succeed.

Prayer is a two way conversation. We share with God our needs and anxieties and those of others; and we listen to God speaking to us about the divine perspective on these concerns, and what he expects us to do to help resolve it. We will hear God speaking to us through Scripture, through the words of other people of faith – and through the silence when when we allow ourselves to encounter the Divine in the deepest and darkest parts of our being. And all of those channels through which God speaks to us may involve us in intellectual and emotional struggles, and we will need to persist in praying, even when it seems barren and pointless, if we are ultimately to hear God speaking to us through them.

Prayer is not ultimately about us and what we want. It is about hearing God, and what God wants, and aligning our will to that. it is about training ourselves to trust God, and the ultimate triumph of the divine purpose for the world, even when there seems to be little hope of it ever being realised. That is what Jesus did, and why he is able to be ‘God for us’. We need to persist in prayer, in imitation of Christ, until  what we want is at one with what God wants for us and for the world, so that we may be ready to recognise and welcome the Kingdom of Heaven when it comes.

Mustard Seed Faith

October 3, 2010

(Habakkuk 1,1-4 & 2,1-4; Luke 17, 5-10)

Today our gospel reading urges us to have ‘mustard seed faith’.

The mustard seed is used several times as an image by Jesus in the gospels; first as a metaphor for something that starts small but grows to enormous size; and as an image of faith that can move mountains, or a mulberry tree into the sea.

It’s become a favourite Christian symbol as well. If you do a Google search you will come up with Mustard Seed Project, Mission, Ministries, Homes, Bookshop, a Mustard Seed restaurant (in a disused church) and even The Order of the Mustard Seed (motto: True to Christ; Kind to People; Gospel to the Nations).

But what does it mean to have ‘mustard seed faith’?

Nowadays we have a problem understanding, because most of us don’t have much experience of mustard seeds. Very few people make their own mustard from scratch, blending different seeds, grinding them into a powder and mixing them up with oil or wine or vinegar. Most of us will buy the powder ready ground, or the whole condiment ready made.

And we have even less experience of mustard plants. For most of us ‘growing mustard seeds’ means helping our children to grow a mixture of mustard and cress in a shallow tray on dap cotton wool or  tissue. It grows easily, but the resulting plant  isn’t big enough for a tiny insect to find a home in, let alone all the birds of the air.

So what was Jesus trying to say?

He was probably talking about the black mustard plant, which could grow to up to 9 feet tall and very wide. In Palestine it was not cultivated in gardens but grew wild . Although it was useful for cooking, it eventually came to be considered as a weed – once you had it growing in your field you could never get rid of it, because the plant produced strong roots,  lots of flowers and the seeds germinated easily. A modern parallel might be the giant hogweed, introduced to this country as an ornamental garden plant, but which is now considered an invasive weed, difficult to eradicate because it too produces so many seeds and has tuberous roots which are difficult to destroy.

In the parable of the mustard seed (Luke 13, 18-19) Jesus is talking about how great things can come from small beginnings; but in the comment we heard from Luke 17, combined with the parable of the slave and the master, he seems to be making a different point.

The comment comes in response to a request from the disciples: “Lord, increase our faith”. It’s not surprising that they feel the need for greater faith: during the journey up to Jerusalem, Jesus has been telling them what is probably going to happen to him, and outlining the nature of their ministry: a ministry where outcasts will be welcomed into their fellowship; where the normal social order will be reversed; where they have to have a special care for children; where they will have to forgive people who wrong them an infinite number of times. No wonder they feel their faith is inadequate to the task!

When Jesus replies to them, as so often happens, he is trying to change their way of thinking. He talks about ‘mustard seed faith’ not in terms of the quantity of faith, but the quality. The mustard seed doesn’t go on about how small and insignificant it is, or how it can’t make any difference, or how the problem of growing a new plant is too much for it: it just gets on with what it was created to do. It blows away in the wind, falls into the earth – and leaves God to deal with the conditions to make it germinate. The mustard seed doesn’t need larger quantities of faith for God to work through it. Neither do we.

Faith is not something that is doled out in smaller or larger quantities. It is a free gift from God to humanity. If we offer ourselves as God’s servants, Jesus is saying, and trust in the divine faithfulness and promise, then God will work through us to do amazing things.

The parable  of the master and servant which follows reinforces this message. Again, our different cultural context makes it more difficult for us to hear Jesus speaking through it. We live in an individualistic enterprise culture; working for someone else , especially as a ‘servant’, tends to be seen as demeaning. That’s why foreigners do most of the work in our hotel and catering industries. But in the ancient Middle East, to be a servant who did the job well gave one a sense of worth and security. And how could anyone regard being a servant as demeaning, when Jesus said he came among us as one who serves?

When Jesus asks the question ‘Which one of you when your servant came in from working outside would sit him down and serve him dinner?’ he asks it in a form which anticipates the answer ‘None’. That isn’t how things work in a traditional society. There are masters and there are servants and each has their place. The servant knows that his job is both to work in the field and to serve in the house, and that is what he does.

Our understanding is not helped by the difficulties of translation. The Greek adjective ( achreios) which is translated as ‘miserable’ or ‘useless’ or ‘unworthy’ can also mean ‘one to whom nothing is owed’. It is that meaning that makes sense in the context of the parable. ‘Is there any credit due to the servant for doing his job properly?’, Jesus is asking. ‘Should he expect a tip or special treatment?’. Again, ‘no’ is the expected answer.

So it is with the disciple and faith. We don’t have faith in order to work miracles, and to prove ourselves special. We are given faith by God, in order that he can work through us for the salvation of all. We are created for that purpose, just as the mustard seed was created to produce new plants. There is no such thing as being ‘further along the path of faith’ or stronger in faith than anyone else. None of us earns salvation by the strength of our faith, or by our good works. Neither serving God faithfully nor strength of  faith gives us any claim on God’s favour (that’s partly what the Reformation was about – a rejection of the idea that God operated a sort of book-keeping system of good works which could be set against sin to buy our way into heaven). To have faith means to serve God without the expectation of any reward.

And what is faith?

In the Christian Church, we’ve come to understand it as assenting to a series of propositions. When anyone is licensed as a Reader or ordained, they are required to ‘declare their belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness’. Now, worthy as they may be, I can’t see anyone moving mulberry trees or changing their lives because of the historic formularies or the catholic creeds.

And people who don’t share the faith can’t either. It is why the atheists and humanists who are so critical of believers at the moment think of faith as ‘believing six impossible things before breakfast’ (to quote the White Queen from Alice through the Looking Glass). They think faith  is about believing in books that come from God via angels, in a world created in six days 4,00 years ago and children born to virgins, rather than adopting a life changing attitude to God and the world. We recite them often, but I don’t think historic creeds are really much help in reminding us what faith is actually about.

When Jesus spoke about faith he was not talking about intellectual belief, or theological definitions. He was talking about values and relationships, actions and a way of life. He meant a profound trust and confidence in God and the divine purpose for the world. It’s the sort of confidence that the prophet Habakkuk is urging the people of Israel to find in our Old Testament reading. ‘Never mind that the world seems to be in moral chaos and financial crisis’ the prophet says. ‘Have faith  in God’s promise that eventually the righteous will live and that goodness will triumph and the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea’.

When Jesus spoke about mustard seed faith, he was also hinting that faith involves a willingness to be broken in God’s service. That is what happened to him, and what he was trying to prepare the disciples for as they travelled on the road to the Holy City. The seed does not grow until it has fallen into the ground and been broken open. Only then can it be transformed into something incredible, new and fruitful. The same may be true of us.

So what is mustard seed faith? It is faith which is a gift from God. It is faith which is prepared to be self-sacrificing, and which allows us to be broken and transformed to serve God’s purpose. It is faith in a different way of living and relating to others. It is faith that we are God’s servants and that God will work through us to bring in the Kingdom of Heaven. It is faith that, no matter how chaotic and evil the world appears to be, the ultimate triumph of God is assured. It is faith that through us, God can do marvellous things.