Prayer through the ages

Sermon preached at St James the Great, Colwall, Sunday 17 September 2017

Romans 14. 1-12

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.

Those two sentences which you heard a few minutes ago, are a short excerpt from what is almost certainly the very first book of Christian theology. The first century Roman congregations, who heard it read for the first time, would have known that they were getting some serious theological argument and, without a doubt, would have spent days, weeks and months turning it over in their minds and discussing it when they met. In that document, there are so many key phrases and sentences, but the one I quoted just now is as profound or as fundamental as any. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves….If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord.

The sermon this morning is the last of a short series commissioned by Melanie on the theme of prayer. Those of you who were here last week will have seen Bernard Ingram showing us some objects – physical things such as the moulding plane his grandfather used to shape door-frames or the edges of shelves. Each of Bernard’s eight objects triggered for him associations with people for whom he is grateful, or for whom he is concerned. Bernard is too modest to compare himself with that 17th century Christian mystic, Brother Lawrence, a man still revered for just that kind of spirituality. Brother Lawrence developed what later generations still call ‘the practice of the presence of God’. Now Lawrence was no theologian – he wasn’t even formally educated: he was a simple soldier invalided out of the army, who entered a monastery as washer-up in the monks’ kitchen.  What Lawrence discovered was that, with each pot he scrubbed (he graduated to sandal repairs later in life!), he came to realise that he was not only in the presence of God, but he was doing his work with God and for God, like two intimate friends. But, make no mistake about this intimacy: he did not think they were best mates. Instead, Lawrence made the startling discovery that, in his kitchen, he was living in and inhaling the Eternal One, the Being who is the source of the whole universe. To stand on his kitchen floor was to stand on holy ground.

My contribution to this short series of sermons on prayer is to tell you that you are - all of you – people who have some experience of prayer. You may think that you never pray, or that you haven’t prayed enough, or you haven’t prayed for a week, a month, a year, or since you were a child. You may be thinking that you try to pray but are no good at it; you may be thinking that prayer is a waste of time; you may be thinking that you once prayed and found your prayer was not answered. I can’t argue with you about any of those thoughts because, if they fit you, then they reflect your experience. But what I can do is tell you that prayer, in the most fundamental sense, is not something you – or I – do. Prayer is only secondarily a set of actions, something we carry out. Because prayer is primarily something you live even if you do not know you are living it. I’ll say more: prayer is primarily something that you cannot do because it is what God does. The Eternal One, the one people call God (as though that were a name instead of a description), Whoever it is that holds an extraordinary universe in its state of being – does so in ways beyond our comprehension. We are the creatures – the creations – of that Eternal Being, part of the outcome, the expression of that Eternal Being, expressions of the consciousness – we dare to say, the love – of that Trinity of Being. That Being has breathed you and me into existence; that Being sustains us through our lives, embraces us – even when we cannot feel the embrace, or even shrink from it - so that we die in those loving arms, and even then move further into that eternal consciousness, that love.

Christian teachers from Paul onwards tell us that if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. Whatever happens we are the Lord’s. It is the loving desire of that Eternal Being that we fulfil a potential in us to become divine ourselves. That is our destiny: that is what God wills for us as God wills it for Jesus our brother. The early teachers in the first couple of centuries following Paul’s time, taught this to all Christian people. They called it theosis – becoming divine. Paul himself called it grace, though that is a word blunted for us by overuse. Your destiny and mine is to become divine – not when we die but from the moment of our birth. That’s what life is for: to live, to learn, to make mistakes, to hurt ourselves and other people, to own up, to turn again, to learn how to love better, to allow ourselves to be moulded by that loving Eternal Being into divinity. Brother Lawrence found that while scraping pots and mending sandals. You and I have similar opportunities. We will never become divine by saying the words of prayers or by trying very hard to be good. In the end, that’s a snare and a delusion: the way to becoming divine is to allow yourself to be moulded by the Eternal Source of your being. All you can do about it is to dare to trust – at first a little, then maybe some more. It is not and never will be a smooth path, and it is certainly eventful. You won’t avoid any of life’s pains or griefs by doing it. But you can perhaps learn to trust the God who makes you, knows you and will always be there, including when you cannot believe it or feel it. In his sermon, Tim Wright quoted as the heart of prayer Jesus’ dying words ‘into your hands I commend my spirit’. That is the heart of the process called prayer – learning to let your Creator mould and guide you.

Because, like me, you are frail, given to self-deception, occasional stupidity and, quite often, downright nastiness, you will need some special help in this life of prayer. That is available. In no particular order, there is the creaking organisation we call Church. It is made up of a bunch of people like us: frail, given to self-deception, occasional stupidity and, quite often, downright nastiness. But the point of the Church is that we really are all in it together: we have gathered, over two thousand years, some collective wisdom, and we have been promised that membership (including through our baptism) is a step along the way to our becoming divine.

And then there are those places and people and occasions which are sometimes called ‘thin’. You may be familiar with the expression: I’m told it comes from ancient, pre-Christian Celtic poetry, readily adopted by Celtic Christians. They said that, often enough, you could sometimes sense that heaven and earth were just three feet apart, but in ‘thin’ places the distance was much less. You may have experienced thinness watching a Herefordshire sunset, or seeing your child being born, or listening to great music. At its best, worship – a simple Eucharist, or a cathedral Evensong – can be ‘thin’ occasions, though I venture to suggest that Anglican worship since the 1600s has been hampered by a preoccupation with getting the words right thus missing out on awe and beauty! However it comes to us, the experience of thinness is one that stays with us. Melanie’s very personal sermon on prayer drew attention to how God is ready to be found by each of us in our own way and in the ordinary experiences of our lives. Any of them can become a moment of ‘thinness’.

You can also find support in becoming divine by reading the Bible. Some people find great nourishment reading on their own. However, the Bible is not light reading. It is not something to be undertaken lightly because it can turn and bite you, upsetting a life you are used to and shining an unwelcome light into unsuspected corners. It’s often helpful, therefore, to study parts of the Bible with other people so that you can support each other; and there are plenty of helpful guides or commentaries to focus your attention.

All these are aids to prayer and I recommend all of them. But they are not prayer itself. Even what we call the Lord’s Prayer is not prayer: if you consult the text, you’ll see that – as Ken Withington pointed out in his sermon on the subject – Jesus is reported to have said these words in response to a demand. The demand was “teach us how to pray” –  not “tell us what to say.” And the thrust of Jesus’ response can be summed up as “learn to trust the Eternal One”, bend your will to God’s will, learn to trust.