Nuns, knitting and why prayer is like a Carry On film

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.


Sermon – post referendum

Here’s what I had to say today in the pulpit following this week’s political turmoil after the recent referendum.



“Lord do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

And Jesus says no.

Do you want us to call down from heaven on them?

And Jesus says no. He rebukes them and turns and went elsewhere.

And that is the gospel for today. That really is the essence of the sermon for today.

There seems to be rather a lot of us-ing and them-ing about at the moment.

And they asked him whether to call down fire from heaven and he turns and goes another way.

Like a lot of things in modern life, Jesus never had to face the consequences of a referendum or any kind of political vote. He knew absolutely nothing about democracy and we much always beware of lifting words from the bible and plonking them down in our own day as though they will sort out all our ills.

But it seems that Jesus did live in a world where he knew about rage.

We tend to think of the Samaritans as being a jolly good thing because we’ve got that parable of the good Samaritan and the wonderful listening charity of the same name.

But the whole point of the Good Samaritan story is that everyone in Jesus’s immediate company believed the Samaritans to be downright bad. And we have a taste of that in this morning’s gospel.

Jesus was heading to Jerusalem – his holy mountain. And that put him at odds with the Samaritan villagers of the place that he wanted to pass through who would have been looking towards Mt Gerazim rather than Jerusalem as the location where God’s salvation history would all be played out.

Do you want us to call down fire from heaven on them?

And Jesus turned away.

I’m very conscious of reading this story in Glasgow in the weeks leading up to 12 July when the marching season is going full pelt.

I recently was in the company of a prominent Roman Catholic member of the clergy when an Orange Walk was going on locally.

I said to him that I was sorry to hear the noise of the those drumbeats still on our city streets.

His reply was one of the saddest things I’ve heard, “oh,” he said, “it is just something we get used to”.

And I made a mental note never to get used to it. Never to hear the beat of angry drums without remembering the look on that person’s face. Never to hear the beat of angry drums without remembering his sad words. And never to hear the beat of angry drums without asking myself what one step I can take to make peace, build peace and call people into loving respect for one another.

I’m also conscious of reading this story in a part of the world which is still reeling from two referendums which have each in very different ways divided friends and split families and been fought with a passion that has sometimes spilled over into something much darker.

Our political situation has put us right in the middle of various overlapping identity wars. And it is a confusing situation too. One brand of identity division doesn’t necessarily map onto another.

I tend not to preach my politics directly from the pulpit though you don’t have to go far to find out what I think. I was, after all, a candidate for political office on two occasions as well as standing to be the Rector of one of Glasgow’s illustrious academic institutions a couple of years ago.

I tend not to preach my politics from the pulpit not least because of my phenomenal lack of success in actually winning the elections I find myself standing in out of personal conviction, or maybe out of personal wanton stupidity and hubris.

Indeed, sometimes when I’m asked to list my hobbies I’m tempted to put “losing elections” down as my principle pastime.

But I think I would preach from the pulpit that each of us must stand up for what we believe in.

And I think I would preach from the pulpit that each of us needs to be formed by the scripture that we read week by week and allow the Godly values that we find there to seep so deep into us that we are changed so that we can change the world.

And I think I must preach from the pulpit this day the fruit of the Spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. For this is our birthright, this is our dna, this is who we really are.

While the identity wars rage around us, we are already beloved of God and the fruit of the spirit is our manifesto – the agenda that we pursue, the identity we preach.

This evening three members of this congregation will be confirmed by Bishop Gregor. As they identify with our faith in prayer and in being anointed by the bishop, we pray that the Spirit will come upon them. And that fruit of the Spirit that we heard of in this morning’s second reading is the life we shout from the rooftops belongs to them and to whosoever seeks it and is the identity they tonight claim for themselves.

This place is a place where the congregation that worships here is very politically active and whatever party any of us align ourselves with, whatever movement, whatever side of whatever referendum we find ourselves on, I hope that the manifesto of the spirit drives us and compels us to act and listen in God’s name wherever we find ourselves.

A great deal of people don’t feel listened to at the moment.

A great deal of people with little power feel unheard by a great deal of people with power and influence.

And that’s my learning point in the middle of this particular turbulence.

The prosperity and wellbeing of the many is the pathway to peace.

The various fruit of the spirit may act as our stepping stones to get to a place of greater calm than we currently possess.

This is a time of some turmoil. It feels as though everything is being thrown up in the air and none of us know quite where things will land.

Let the fruit of the spirit be written on our hearts as we each take our part in finding answers.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.

And remember.

There will never be a referendum on the love of God.

That decision was made long ago, once and for all and is eternal.

God’s love is for everyone. In-ers, Out-ers. Voters. Non-voters. For the wise. For the foolish. For the foolish who don’t know they are wise. And for the wise who don’t realise they are foolish.

And one day love will triumph and there will be no us and them at all.

Just those who are beloved of God.

Always and forever.