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Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost
2 Timothy 3.10 – 4.5
The reality is that our postmodern Western culture of choices rather than givens, of optional obligations and personal agendas, is a world of consumers, yes, of joiners, sometimes—as long as whatever you join provides you with worthwhile benefits—but it is no longer a world of unquestioned belonging. In matters of religion things are no different.
So says The Reverend Dr Scott Cowdell, Canon Theologian of this Diocese in a rather challenging piece about the state of the Church. I shall provide the full reference when this sermon goes online if you wish to read further.
Being a Christian and going to church is a victim of the society we have helped create. It is a culture of choice where the only given is that there are no givens.
Understandably we are concerned about the decline in church life (or we should be, if we are not) and the waning influence of a worldview that is God and Christ-centred. If we are to seek to make disciples of all people, how are we to do so in such a culture? And the choices are here within the life of the church as well as more widely.
In our attempt to keep people in the tent, we may do God a disservice if we fashion God and the life of God’s people to a marketing strategy. As Paul says, we are tempted to accumulate for ourselves teachers to suit our own desires. Somehow, we must hold on to the integrity of God’s nature and purposes.
Now I am never one to resist change and evolution. Without change, a few of us would be up here mumbling away in Latin while the rest of you shuffled around in the background, selling chickens and turnips, quite detached from anything that is going on. You have had female priests here – and the sky didn’t fall in. But let us not forget whose church it is. It is the church of God.
Our readings today resonate with the truth of mutuality and our dependence upon the wisdom of God. Dependence, submission and obedience are not comfortable terms in this post-modern age. But remember, the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Have we forgotten how to garner that wisdom? Do we rely too much on our own strength?
In our Collect, we prayed ‘’teach us to rely day and night on your care …. Support our prayer lest we grow weary, for in you alone is our strength”.
The Psalmist says that it is the law of God that has made us wiser than our enemies, and that we love the law of God, which is our meditation all the day long.
Jeremiah reinforces the dependant nature of a relationship where God is God, we are his people because the law of God is written on our hearts.
It is not, we note, the laws of God but the law, the beliefs, precepts, the ways of seeing and of being that are of God. It is the truth of God’s nature, the wisdom with which we are bound as people who have committed ourselves to God’s sovereignty.
And how do we gain access to that wisdom and not weaken? Jesus tells us. It is the easiest thing – and the hardest. We must pray always and not lose heart.
Jesus followers had picked up was that he was a man of prayer. They saw him constantly active in prayer. How often do we read in the gospels, Jesus went into the wilderness to pray, or he asked them to pray with him, such as the night in Gethsemane when he was betrayed. We recall, he prayed; they slept.
They knew that prayer was central to who he was and to what he did. Prayer was his supply chain for teaching, for healing, for survival in the challenge he was given. It was always the single most important thing he did. His first followers saw that this kind of private prayer — not simply formulaic petitions, but wrestling with God over real issues and questions — formed the undercurrent of his life and public work.
That is why our prayer life, like that of Jesus, must be constant. It must be regular practice through which we immerse ourselves in God´s hope for the world and in the presence of his Spirit, without which none this can happen.
But is that how we see our life in prayer? Or do we see it as a series of requests, of our own hopes and desires that we place before God? And is that God-centred or is it self-centred?
I do worry that sometimes our prayer requests must frustrate even the most loving and patient God. I remember being asked in the same week once to pray for rain in a difficult Australian drought when so much was at stake and at the same time to ask God to provide a fine day for the church fete. I could almost feel him grinding the divine teeth and saying, look, make your mind up! Don´t you people know what you want? I did pray for both, but more that we have the strength and good nature to manage through the drought, to support and sustain each other as best we could, and that we have lots of jolly fun at the fête even through the bucketing rain if that´s what was to happen. After all, doesn´t God know our needs before we ask?
In all my prayer life, I have come to the view that prayer isn´t intended to change God. It works best when it seeks to change me.
And, as we are promised, God will answer our prayers. I suggest that there are three answers God will always give. One is a resounding ‘yes’, another is a ‘well, maybe, but not yet’. The third is when God says, ‘Well, there other plans’. And these we can only ever accept as people of faith.
How often can we only understand God´s plan and purpose when we look at it through the rear-view mirror? Looking forward doesn´t always make much sense. We can only see through a glass darkly.
And it can be very dark indeed at those times when we pray fervently and devoutly for something to happen and it doesn´t. We pray for a loved one to be healed (but there is another whole sermon in what we and God might mean by that), we pray for some disaster to be averted; I know many Christian people who pray for their children, who have lost the faith of their childhood to be brought back to the fold. And none of it happens.
Some lose their trust in prayer. Others lose their faith altogether, seeing in the outcome a God who no longer hears or cares. And these are tough times. We can only pray on for strength, in faith and trust.
And what of language? People ask me what language does God understand. Well all, and none at all. God does not require us to utter our prayers in the quaint or the most elegant phraseology that we can muster. Indeed, at times the effort I exert in finding the right word, the right phrase leaves me adrift, not focussed on the things I have on my heart. Speak to God in whatever works. Pray how you can rather than how you can´t. And don´t forget to listen. Silence is the best prayer you can offer.
And explore further in your life of prayer the openings God provides, because, as we have seen, prayer needs to be steeped in God and not in us.
In I Thessalonians 5 we read:
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks;
Well, two things. Yes, be thankful and rejoice in your prayer as we said last week
But how can we pray without ceasing? How can we deal with all the practicalities of life and pray constantly?
Let me suggest that it prayer can be like the image we place on the desktop on our computers. It is there, always, ever-present. And on it we place the applications, the programs that enable us to do the work. But these function always with the background of our desktop image. If our prayer can be like that, a diaphanous screen, if you will, through which we see and manage everything we undertake. It is an attitude of prayerfulness rather than an act of praying.
Live in prayerfulness within the sacrament of the present moment.
And so we pray, irony of ironies, Lord teach us to pray. But worry not. Be not anxious about prayer. If we don´t get it right, God will. As in so many other ways, God will bridge the gap between our inadequacy and his perfection.
So, let us pray: