A sermon by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
For the last four weeks the most exhausting part of the day has sometimes been the evening news: an era-defining vote; political convulsions and implosions; balers out, clingers on; unforgettable phrases, like ‘Take control!’ and ‘But I have children’; atrocities (most recently in Munich and Kabul); civil strife; cheating in sport as a nationalised industry. There’s been good stuff in there too, and stuff to make you smile - Wimbledon, Pokémon Go and (we hope) the Tour de France - but what are we to do about the dark stuff?
Some people are in a position to influence events. Others have the gift of saying wise things about what is happening and why; and - for those who haven’t had enough of experts - that can help. But what do the rest of us do? The answer in today's gospel is - pray.
What good will that do? I can’t explain, but it is the most natural thing, to bring the pain and glory of our world to the one who is its creator and redeemer. If you doubt the value of prayer, ask a needy friend if they’d like us to pray for them and see what they say. Your answer to the Bishop of Salisbury’s question, ‘What do you pray for?’ will be revealing if you pray honestly, and offer your deepest desires to God.
So pray, then. But how? Jesus offers a template. Read the pithy version of what we call the Lord’s Prayer in the gospel reading. It covers the essentials: longing for a better world; stating our needs, from food to forgiveness; facing up to our fragility. But who are we talking to? What picture of God do you have when you pray?
When you pray, says Jesus, say, 'Father’; in his own language of Aramaic, Abba, to which the closest English equivalent is actually ‘Dad’. God is infinite, beyond our universe, so to picture God we need to borrow pictures from this finite world of ours and apply them to God, and this is one Jesus recommends: Dad.
So that's what God’s like, like your dad only more so: loving, caring, not always saying what you want to hear, but always wanting the best for you. And you may have a problem with that. This image may well work for you - great! - but you may say, 'That wasn't - that isn't - like my dad.' And if you are a father yourself, you may be embarrassed, being set up as an image of God. 'Actually,' you may say, 'I've been a rather selfish dad.' Or, 'I thought I know what was best for my children; but I was wrong.'
Jesus knows that ‘Abba’ is not a definition of God but an image, drawn from imperfect human experience: 'You lot are pretty evil,' he joshes with the crowd, 'but even you know how to give your kids good stuff; so how much more will God?' Even so, though, the word Dad may be damaged for you, so that this image of God does not work.
Happily, there are others. Isaiah talks of God as mother, as Jesus does once, implicitly, of himself (Isaiah 66.13, Luke 13.34 - a mother hen). And there is another image contained in Jesus' words today. After teaching his disciples the Lord's Prayer, he tells them a parable about how you need to be bold when you pray. It's a story about - friends.
Something I’ve been happy to carry over from my old job in south west London to this one is an involvement with Street Pastors. About this time last year, a bit after midnight, we saw a man curled up behind a pillar box outside Richmond rail station. We checked how he was. He wasn't obviously drunk (which marked him out), but he had missed the last train, and was trying to sleep until the first departure of the morning. We gave him a bottle of water and said God bless. I guess he had no friends in Richmond. If he had had, he could have knocked on their door, even at that hour.
In Jesus' story, the late-night traveller does have a friend's door to knock on. That friend sees the fridge is empty and so knocks on another friend's door for some food. Jesus jokes that he gets it not for friendship's sake but just to save waking the whole house up, but none of this would be happening unless they were friends. Friendship underpins the whole episode, and the belief that friends are people you can call on - even if the call turns out to be a wake-up call.
Jesus' hint here is that this is how it is with you and me and God - we are friends, bound together not by command and control, nor by self-interest, not by kinship but by bonds of another kind. That governs how you and I should pray: we should make calls on God as we might on a friend. And it sets the tone for how God sees us and how we should see each other.
This is a big part of what the church exists for: to say and sing and do things to show that we see ourselves and each other not in the way the world may see us but as God sees us, in ways that go beyond biology - who your parents were, what your gender is, or which gender you are attracted to - ways that go beyond economics or nationality, beyond even history and culture. It is, for instance, entirely right that the organisation that supports this place is called not - say- the Salisbury Cathedral Society but the Friends of Salisbury Cathedral. Jesus calls us friends, and Jesus is the human face of God, so we are friends of God, which is why our central act of worship is not a parade before our commander, or an audience with our ruler, but a gathering around a table, a feast of friendship.
It's well put by Francis Spufford in a book anyone would profit from reading this Summer. It's called Unapologetic. At one point he describes after-service coffee - do stay for ours - with people
balancing biscuits and cups of coffee in one hand as we do crowd control on the children with the other, and making slightly awkward conversation about the weather, holidays, cricket scores, the news, the progress of flowers and vegetables.
These people don't necessarily have very much in common with each other, by all the usual standards. So what makes them different from a meeting of the Salisbury Civic Society, or any other really worthwhile leisure-hours gathering? Well, says Spufford, social chitchat is not all that is going on.
We're also celebrating the love-feast. Our hearts are in our eyes as we look at each other. We are engaged in the impossible experiment of trying to see each other the way God sees us. That is, as if we were all precious beyond price, for reasons quite independent of any of the usual cues for attraction we apes jump to recognise: status, charisma, beauty, confidence, wealth, wisdom, authority.
In John's gospel, on the night of this meal, Jesus the master says to his disciples,
No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends. (John 15.15)
And so he calls us. And in the week ahead, in the face of the world’s madness and our own, more intimate, joys and troubles, he invites us to pray, to talk to God. We can do it silently or out loud, but we can do it honestly, unselfconsciously, unguardedly, ‘as one speaks to a friend’ (Exodus 33.11).
Abba There is a debate about how best to translate this word.
I am grateful to Angela Ames for this insight.
Unapologetic Francis Spufford, Faber 2012, page 202. See also this video introduction