Sermon preached on 24 July 2016
I had a cup of tea beside me as I tried to pretend to read a very worthy book about prayer than had been recommended for me by a Franciscan friar.
I still have the book and I’ve still not finished it even now nearly 25 years later.
I’d come to this monastic house for a quiet weekend praying and thinking about my soul and my vocation and generally trying to be holy.
And I was joined in the sitting room by a couple of members of the community – two religious sisters.
This was an unusual religious house in that it was a small community of men and women living together.
And the women were not Sisters of the Great Veil and Wimple but your more modern nuns who wander this world in the camouflage of ordinary dress. And a great bunch of women they were too doing no end of good in this world.
The two religious sisters came into sitting room and asked me whether they could join me.
I said, of course. And they immediately put on the television and both sat down and got out their knitting.
I with my book about prayer.
They with their knitting and a Carry On film on the television.
Now, for those who were not raised on these shores, a Carry On film probably requires some explanation. A series of films that were sexist, bawdy, outrageous and very occasionally very funny. (Though rarely as funny as they ought to have been). They were a product of their time and their time is now long past. In these more sophisticated days they seem rather absurd – though of course it was the absurd that they very successfully satirised for decades.
So I sat turning the pages of my devout book about prayer.
Kenneth Williams’s nasal voice delivered one liner after one liner on the television.
And the nuns knitted on as only religious people can do.
Knit one unto another. Perl one unto another. And then from time to time, a barely suppressed snigger.
After a while, one of the nuns turned to the other and said thoughtfully, “Hmmm. You know what?”
“What?” said the other clicking her needles.
“This is just like being nuns”.
“Hmmm yes,” said her sister, “just like being nuns…apart from the Carry On film”
“Hmm” said the first.
And then they both looked across at me with my pious book of the history of prayer in the lives of the early fathers of the church and both burst into fits of giggles.
“Lord teach us how to pray” said the disciples to Jesus.
What have I learned about prayer that has sustained me through my ministry since the time I was describing just before I tested my vocation again and entered into training for the ministry?
If anything I think I have learned that prayer is a response, curiously like a carry on film, to a world that is quite utterly absurd.
I had a day of it this week when I was trying to take a funeral service and set off boldly for a Crematorium that I’d never been to before in the full but utterly mistaken belief that I could navigate the shape-shifting roads of the south-side of this city.
I couldn’t, of course. (Who can?)
And ended up rolling into the Crematorium after everyone else had got there apologising having taken a wrong turn.
“Don’t worry” some of the mourners said to me – “we’ve just got here too. We nearly went to the wrong funeral. We discovered at the last minute we were following the wrong hearse.”
Lord, how shall we pray in this complex, absurd, frightening but also very peculiar world?
I rather fear that the disciples might well have been rather serious young men like the person I was in the convent sitting room.
And Luke’s gospel records two very different answers – firstly the Lord’s prayer that we know so well. A model for how to pray that undermines any attempt to learn to pray intercessions amongst the Christian community by its brevity and profundity.
Short, simple and holy.
And then this business of asking, seeking and knocking.
When I was younger and found myself in many a worthy evangelical prayer meeting, we used to think that this all meant that we had to be more sincere in our prayer, more earnest in our prayer, more devout, more pious and very often more lengthy in our prayers and that if we got it right, God would give us what we asked for.
Because the bible told us so.
But the truth is, this gospel doesn’t tell us that the more we pray the more we get what we ask for.
It tells us that the more we pray, the more we get the Holy Spirit. Which is another matter altogether.
Jesus presumes in fact that the disciples will ask, not for what they want, but for the Holy Spirit.
And that means the Holy Spirit of God.
The Holy Spirit of Common Sense.
The Holy Spirit of Wisdom.
…whom God’s people have known of old, who dances with us through the absurd world in which we live and inspires us, cajoles us and in the most unlikeliest of situations can make us laugh or dance or sing.
Even when hearts are breaking. For we believe in resurrection not once but everywhere.
What have I learned about prayer? I think I have learned that it is more likely that we are the answer to God’s prayers for a grieving and needy world. That seems much more likely than that God will simply do what we ask like a cosmic magician.
Prayers are not spells nor tricks nor illusions.
And I think I learned something important from the religious sisters – that a life of prayer isn’t supposed to make us po-faced over our knitting. Just the opposite in fact.
When we pray the holy spirit comes to us and can teach us not only how to pray but how to answer prayer also.
I know that people are asking how to pray in the face of terrible events. Shootings and terrorism are real and people find praying hard.
It is important to find ways to mark the moments of tragedy – to pause, to reflect, to remember.
But it is only a pause.
We get up again and we turn and face a world and we work, we reflect, we organise to make it a better world tomorrow than it was yesterday.
And that’s part of the prayer that Jesus taught us.
When we pray an amen to a prayer that God’s Kingdom will come we give our assent to help in making it so.
Remember at this time that European cities are safer than they have been in decades. Our own city particularly so.
Deaths on our streets have sharply declined.
There was a time when we might well have been praying about gang violence in our city that was taking so many young lives.
Those deaths are becoming far less common because God has answered those prayers.
Those deaths have become far less common because people, real people have worked, reflected and organised to make things different.
That’s how answers to prayer come.
Pray we will, in the face of terror on city streets.
Pray we must. in the face of the absurdities of this world.
But to pray is to know that there is work to be done. And joy to be found in doing it.
Lord, said the disciples, Lord, teach us to pray.