“What then will we have?”
Preacher: Canon Nigel Davies, Vicar of the Close
26 January 2021
Some consider E.M. Forster’s novel ‘Howards End’ to be his greatest work. First published in 1910, it tells the interwoven stories of three families. On the one hand, the Wilcox family hold Victorian ideas about class, while the more modern Schlegel sisters have romantic ideals and feel strong compassion for the poor. In the middle of it is an impoverished couple, the Basts.
One of the themes running throughout the book is communication – or, rather, the lack of it. For instance, while Margaret Schlegel tends to internalise things she really wants to say, her sister Helen blurts them out without any thought. When Margaret marries into the Wilcox family, she soon discovers that her husband, Henry, is stiff and unsentimental, with some very judgemental views about the poor. Although Margaret doesn’t articulate the depth of her feelings to Henry, Forster shows us her innermost thoughts. Above all, her passionate plea to Henry is: “Only connect!”
Have you ever noticed how much of the Bible portrays people connecting and communicating with one another, and with God? Both this evening’s readings contain at least one exchange between God and another person – and it’s generally a person in need of reassurance. In Matthew, we overhear a conversation between Jesus and Peter. It follows on the heels of another well-known conversation, not included in the passage – the one between Jesus and the rich young man, whose wealth is a stumbling block to his discipleship.
We may be familiar with the idea of virtuous poverty, but for the Jesus’ disciples, living in a culture where wealth was equated with virtue, this idea was astounding. So, you can imagine a stunned silence as disciples watch the young man walk sadly away – nobody really knows what to say. Then as so often, with his knack of saying what everyone is probably thinking, Peter blurts out: “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?" prompting Jesus reply, which is reassuring and at the same time makes clear that discipleship can be costly.
There are three conversations in tonight’s reading from Acts. Firstly, the exchange between Saul and Jesus. Next, God talks to Ananias, telling him to go and find Saul, who is recovering from the shock of his encounter with Christ. Finally, the conversation between Ananias and Saul a moving account of one man acting in faith to help another. Saul, who was once so powerful and purposeful, now sightless and confused, searching for the answer to his question ‘Who are you Lord?’, waiting for the promised help.
These two different questions are perhaps analogous of the ways in which people connect with God in prayer. I am sure during the pandemic, many a Christian and others have thrown the ‘What’s going on?’ question in God’s direction, as well as ‘God - where are you in all this?’ Two simple and direct prayers echoing the questions Peter and Paul asked of Jesus directly, or in a vision.
There are of course many different types of prayers and ways to connect and communicate with God. Each Christian will have their preferred method of praying, whether it be silent meditation at home; praying through a liturgy; reciting familiar prayers; or addressing God directly in our own words. For some praying communally in a building is their preferred method, so being away from such a special sacred space as your church, or this Cathedral, may have been particularly difficult, although the Livestreaming of services has proved helpful to many, enabling people to feel a connection with their special place.
“Only connect!” these powerful, familiar words E.M. Forster has Margaret Wilcox exclaim, might also be used to express the human longing to be in communication with God. This side of heaven it is through prayer, be it spoken or unspoken, that we can make that connection and have that conversation.