Prayer as a journey
Sermon at St James’, Colwall, Sunday 13 August 2017
Matthew 14: 22-33
To listen to the recording (of most of the sermon) as you read:
In our series of sermons on the subject of Prayer this one is entitled “Prayer as a Journey” and I want to start with two simple images.
The first is a picture of a young child, hands together, eyes closed asking for God’s blessing on Mummy and Daddy and all the family including the pet rabbit. Some of us may have been that child or we may have come to prayer later in our lives, but at least we can identify where that young boy or girl is – wanting all to be well for those loved ones.
The second image is of the dry, thin lips of someone near to death as they move slowly to mouth the words of the Lord’s Prayer – trying to pray in the last moments of an earthly life perhaps in the presence of someone dear and known.
So the start of a spiritual life and the earthly end of it. What has gone on in between and where are we on this spiritual journey? Indeed has it been a spiritual journey for us or has it been simply a collection of episodes, moments when faith has been strong interspersed with moments when we have been so busy and preoccupied that prayer has been a low priority unless we have been worried or in despair.
So what guide-lines can we find to help us on our way?
Let’s turn first to look at our Lord. What example has Jesus given us of prayer and a spiritual life? If we start with today’s Gospel reading, there is a very simple statement which is easily missed. Matthew writes: “After Jesus had dismissed the crowds he went up the mountain by himself to pray.” Anyone who has visited the hills around Galilee can easily understand Jesus or any man or woman feeling near to God in such a beautiful place.
Notice that Jesus was praying and this is not the same as saying prayers. As Mother Teresa put it “Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God and listening to his voice in the depth of our hearts.” So if we can grow in this kind of prayer it will be the most important aspect of our spiritual lives and it will be a kind of journey.
Then at the end of his life Jesus’ prayer takes on an extra urgency, an understandable urgency as he faces betrayal, arrest and the pain of dying. In the garden of Gethsemane he moves away from his friends and agonizes about what lies ahead – surely many of us have been there with Jesus when our future has been uncertain haven’t we? Then on the cross itself more prayer: for forgiveness of his persecutors, in despair at apparently being forsaken by his Father and at the last with a loud voice: “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Father into your hands I commend my spirit. Those final words of Jesus have to be a key to our spiritual lives.
Some of you might know the stories of Don Camillo – ‘The Little World of Don Camillo’ by Giovanni Guareschi. They are a light-hearted take on a true story of a Catholic priest in Italy after the war, standing up to the local mayor, who is a communist. Don Camillo constantly pops in and out of his church so he can talk to Jesus and Jesus talks back to him. For instance, the mayor, Peppone, asks Don Camillo to baptize his son, but Don Camillo refuses because Peppone wants to name his boy ‘Lenin’. Lenin is not a proper Christian name, he thinks, but when he tells Jesus about it, Jesus rebukes him for trying to change the rules of Baptism and gets him to baptize the boy.
Many people are like Don Camillo. They share with their Lord the tiny, everyday details of their lives, their families, their worries, in a kind of conversation. Yet they also groan inwardly about this troubled world – the wickedness of men and women and the suffering of innocents everywhere. At all levels they share their thoughts with God.
Now what this journey of prayer is essentially about is practising the presence of God. ‘The Practice of the Presence of God’: this is the title of a collection of sayings of Brother Lawrence, a 17th century French monk who had been a rough, ordinary soldier in the Thirty Years War before joining a Carmelite monastery. Because he was uneducated he was given the job of washing and cleaning the pots and pans in the kitchen and also mending the monks’ sandals. He did this until his death in 1691 but in the meantime he became revered for his profound peace and spiritual guidance and his sayings were eventually collected.
As Brother Lawrence said, “In the noise and clatter of the kitchen, whilst several persons are calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees in Chapel.”
There will always, of course, be a role for quiet times and holy places, but at their heart our spiritual lives are living relationships with God and, as with all relationships, they are journeys of discovery. God is nearer to us than breathing and nearer than we think.
Father into your hands we commend our spirits – as always.