Sermon 6 November 2016
More than once in my years here we have had a local person from Mirfield start to work here and being rather nervous about it. Then as he or she gradually got used to the people and the entertaining goings-on here, that person came to love it and was reluctant to leave. I can remember one temporary nurse who said appreciatively ďI never knew it was like thisĒ.
In the centuries covered by the Old Testament we see a similar thing going on in the relationship between the people of Israel and God. There is a growing sense of Godís uniqueness and majesty; also Godís mercy, fullness and tenderness. Hand-in-hand with this there is a growing appreciation of the dignity of the human being. Jesus is the heir of a tradition which received some of its finest expression in Isaiah and in the book of Job. The more dignified that the picture of human beings becomes, the greater is the apprehension of the wonder and majesty and loving-kindness of God. With Jesus you add to that the fact of the incarnation - that this God of such majesty and of such boundless love actually became one of us - and what you end up with is a picture of every human being, rich or poor, strong or weak, as being of such great dignity that we are destined ultimately be taken by God to himself.
In this context the position of the Sadducees in todayís Gospel reading can only seem pathetic. Their God canít give us eternal life - for they donít believe in the resurrection. Because of that their picture of human beings is less than glorious and their picture of God is quite frankly boring. Who would want to give their life for such a God? They wouldnít be barmy anyway, if he wasnít able to resurrect them.
One thing which human beings need to be saved from again and again is reducing our picture of God. When we reduce our picture of God, our picture of human beings is reduced as well.
Coming to this weekend, you might have seen an article has appeared in the Church Times which quotes me on prayer. A young lady had interviewed me very well on the phone and she had to prune down all I said into a short space and so the article is a bit over-simplified. What I really wanted to say - but it wouldnít have been very polite - is that in the Church today we are in danger of living with a puny vision of what it is to be a human being and that is hand-in hand with a puny vision of God. Not in all parts of the church but itís certainly around. Itís around not least because the church has become weak on prayer.
Many people struggle with prayer - they might say to themselves ďwhat shall I do today? Say the Lordís prayer perhaps - say a prayer out of my book of prayers - remember some people who need praying for but then so often I struggle for it to be real". Many people might say this ad many donít really manage to pray every day, or even every other day. There are many clergy who really struggle; to live a life of prayer which will actually keep them going.
I have tried quite a lot of
experiments in parishes to encourage members of congregations to pray every day,
praying the prayers of the Church, so that there is a sense of praying not alone
but with others. I wouldnít say the success rate has been meagre but there is
no way in which my efforts have has set a fire going. I come more and more to
feel that itís not enough to encourage one another to pray every day.
Thereís more to it than that. It seems to me that there is a quartet of things
that used to be second-nature for Christians - certainly in the Church of
England - but very widely they are disappearing or have already been lost from
sight. The quartet would be this:
1. Worship as the absolute
foundation and bedrock of our Christian life - not any old worship but the
liturgy of the church.
2. My personal prayer,
springing out of the worship.
3. A sense of the Church. When
we pray we are never alone - we are praying with people all over the world, on
Earth and in heaven. So itís not so much me trying to pray, as me being taken
up into the great song of the church which rises to Godís throne day and
night. A sense of the church.
4. A sense in our bones of the
tradition, the Christian repertoire of wisdom and prayer going back 2000 years.
This might sound a bit
complicated but it isnít at all. Itís not rocket science. Throughout the
ages Christians at every level have taken it for granted without thinking about
it. Going right back, this quartet of things is there right through the new
Testament. Think of the episode where the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to
pray and he gives them the Lordís Prayer.
1. The phrases of the Our
Father all come from Jewish worship - they are traditional expressions for the
worship in Temple and the synagogue and the Psalms. So thatís number 1:
2. Jesus intends it as
something to pray when you pray on your own. It is personal prayer springing out
3. There is a sense of the
Church. Jesus delivers it to the group of his disciples - he has been slowly
forming them into a group with a strong sense of belonging. This is the Church
in its earliest form. The Lordís Prayer is in the plural Ė Our
Father, give us this day our daily bread. It is filled with a sense of the Church, the People
4. Behind it stands a great
tradition. Prayers like the Lordís Prayer are there in the Jewish tradition
before Jesus. This tradition is in the bones of the disciples - itís just
In this little incident all
those four things are unselfconsciously there - simply, innately known. You can
find many other examples in the New Testament, showing the same four things,
whether itís, say, the Transfiguration, the feeding of the 5000, or the Last
If we are to be a Church which
prays we need to find a way of returning to a state where these four things are
simply in our bones - we donít need to think about them. They are just sitting
happily there below our conscious level and coming into operation without any
Sometimes we need nudging from
behind and there is a fifth consideration to add to the other four that could
nudge us - itís about this: simply to look at our world. To look at the
terrible state itís in. This is a world which needs a strong Church. If the
Church were strong, it could be a great force for good. The Church will be
strong when itís a praying church. So we need to get praying.
All human beings have the immense dignity of being made in the image of God. We must beware of slipping into a picture of ourselves and of God which is banal and ineffectual, like that of the Sadducees, because all we are then is a Church that is half-dead. God is not a God of the dead but of the living. A living Church will be a praying church.
George Guiver, Superior CR