A Sermon preached by Canon Anna Macham, Precentor
Sunday 28 July 2019- 10:30am- 6 After Trinity
Colossians 2: 6-15 and Luke 11: 1-13
In her memoir The Salt Path, the writer Raynor Winn describes a journey that she and her husband- in their fifties- set out on, to walk the 630-mile South West Coast Path, following the whole coastline from Somerset to Dorset, via Devon and Cornwall. The journey wasn’t planned. Through a series of circumstances and bad luck, a bad investment and a friend who turned out not to be a friend, the couple lost the house and farm that gave them their livelihood. Days later, the husband was diagnosed with a terminal rare degenerative brain disease. The book starts with them crouching in a space under the stairs, the bailiffs banging on the door, about to force their way in. It’s at that point that Raynor discovers in a dusty box an old guide book to the path that she’d used in her twenties. Leaning forward to retrieve it, she is spotted. The bailiffs know they are there, and so their journey begins. With nothing but an old tent and no money, not knowing where they will sleep or get food, they set out. All they can do is walk.
For Winn, there’s something about loss and grief, being made homeless- with all the attached stigma and vulnerability that- perversely- is healing. Walking close to nature, pressing forward even when all is lost, fulfils some need. Although she is an atheist, her journey leads to a sort of spiritual awakening. Living so close to nature, she discovers a strength, a “power”, something outside herself, yet also within, that she can trust.
In the section of Luke’s Gospel that we’ve just heard, Jesus and his disciples have set out on a long journey. Luke is full of arduous journeys. Peter, James and John get up and leave everything they know to follow Jesus, who later makes his own journey to the cross. The disciples have given up everything, their homes and livelihoods. The journey is tough. Already, they’ve got things wrong; taken false turns. And now, on the road, putting one step in front of the other, trying out the life of faith, they feel an urgent need to know more. It’s as if being at their point of vulnerability- testing their human capacity to endure- emboldens them, giving them the openness and courage to ask Jesus their question about prayer.
What is it that compels us about prayer? Prayer is difficult. And yet- as ample surveys and statistics demonstrate- as a nation we haven’t lost the desire to do it. A large majority of us, and not just Christians or religious people, do pray, sometimes almost despite ourselves.
The many prayers left here in this Cathedral daily reveal a variety of reasons. We pray because we feel the need to thank someone or something for the beauties of life, or because we feel small and helpless, and sometimes afraid. We may pray for forgiveness, for power or strength, for the assurance that we are not alone. We pray out of desperation, because we have nowhere else to turn. The word “prayer” itself comes from the Latin root precarius, which is related linguistically to our English word “precarious”.
Prayer seems to speak to some basic human need. One Christian commentator writes, “Whatever else prayer is, it is a fully human action. It is perhaps the most human thing that we can do, the very thing that defines us and makes us human”.* That doesn’t mean it’s easy. As someone who attends a lot of church services, being required to pray constantly, and often to lead prayers, doesn’t always help. Sometimes the words are too familiar. Sometimes we have no words. We don’t know what to say to God.
When the disciples ask Jesus how to pray, he gives them the Lord’s Prayer. The most basic and enduring prayer in Christendom, this is the jewel in the crown of all Jesus’ teachings on the subject. Encapsulating the core teachings of the Christian faith, this prayer is so important that according to St Augustine it has almost sacramental status, pointing beyond itself, a channel of grace, “by which the sacred signified truth becomes a part of the lives of the believer”. Or as the French mystic Simone Weil put it, “The Our Father contains all possible petitions; we cannot conceive of any prayer not already contained in it. It is to prayer what Christ is to humanity.”
The Lord’s Prayer has inspired countless sermons, treatises and literary works. And yet it’s a prayer that anyone can pray and understand. It was incredibly moving, recently, to be part of the performance of Evening Songs, where children from a local school, Exeter House, some with severe disabilities, worked with our choristers to produce their own responses to the liturgy of Evensong. Often their responses were asking for help; often they wrote words of encouragement. The call and response structure of Evensong culminated in the Lord’s Prayer, whose music was improvised on the day. Hearing the familiar lines shouted and then repeated as a whisper, done with such enthusiasm, brought out their meaning afresh. It challenged me to think more deeply about words I say and sing each day and left me in no doubt about the strong relationality between them and me, choir and cantor, and between all of us and God.
And it’s this relationality, the relationship between humans and God, that is at the heart of all prayer, that the Lord’s Prayer captures so well. Any Jew could have prayed, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”, using the formal and exclusively religious Abinu. But when Jesus prays, he uses the word Abba, with which a child addressed his human father, thus transforming the Fatherhood of God from a theological doctrine into an intense and intimate familial experience. God is not distant, aloof, not anti-human, not angry, sullen and withdrawn: God draws near, very near; God is with us. The audacity of addressing Almighty God in this way is possible because a new time has begun with the coming of the kingdom, for whose completion the prayer fervently longs.
In giving his disciples this prayer, Jesus gives us a pattern of how we ought to pray. If we’re tempted to think of prayer as something very formal or specialised, practised mainly by religious professionals, the Lord’s Prayer reminds us that it’s ok simply to ask- and to keep asking- for help and for what we need, and to keep do this on a daily basis. And to trust that God will answer.
Later in our reading, Jesus speaks in a kind of riddle: “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find”. The parable that follows, again about a traveller who, weary and famished, desperate for bread, won’t stop knocking at his friend’s door in the middle of the night is about the need to be persistent in prayer, and God’s promise to answer. If arduous journeys are important in this gospel, so is the power of prayer.
Authentic prayer awakens that within us that is most human; it’s our human response to God. And the Lord’s Prayer in its simple yet profound depths, is the one that the disciples encounter while they are on the road for the first time. Raynor Winn described her journey into nature, with all its storms, as her safe place. Wherever we go, however treacherous, may we know that we are in the hands of God. May our faith in the words of his prayer enable us to have courage in the challenges our journey presents us with, trusting that God’s loving presence and power will never leave us.
*Prayer: A Guide for the Perplexed, Ashley Cocksworth (2018), p.114