Notes from the sermon given by the Revd Dr Angela Birkin on 7th October 2018
Luke 18 : 1 – 30
Guided by our reading from Luke’s Gospel this morning I would like us to spend some time thinking about prayer.
Not about the different ways of praying, or different types of prayer, important though they are, but taking a step further back and thinking about how we bring ourselves to God in prayer, our attitude, expectations and demeanour.
Let’s start towards the end of our reading with the rich man coming to Jesus, asking about inheriting eternal life and being challenged by Jesus’ response to sell all he owned and give the money to the poor. People who encountered Jesus were often challenged by him not least in the call to follow him.
As Christians, as followers of Jesus we should not be surprised to be challenged by Jesus as we pray. In fact we should expect to be challenged by Jesus as we pray.
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, explained in a recent talk on prayer that when we pray one of the things we do is start to align our seeing and wanting with the seeing and wanting of God, with God’s loving purpose for us and for the world. Through the action of the Holy Spirit we start to see ourselves and the world as God sees us and the world. Our eyes are opened to people and situations we may never have seen, have noticed before, and when we see those people and situations as God sees them then God can use us to work for the coming of God’s kingdom of justice and peace.
When you pray expect to be challenged and changed.
Let’s move to the earlier episode of people bringing infants to Jesus. “It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” Jesus tells his disciples who were trying to stop parents bringing their children to Jesus.
Very young children had little status in Jesus’ day. Loved by their parents they surely were but their lives were precarious and they had no economic worth. Yet Jesus tells us that we must receive the kingdom of God as a little child.
What does that mean for us when we pray?
Babies and very young children cannot be anyone other than the person they are. They cannot yet pretend to be someone else, they have not yet learned to hide their feelings. If they are happy and content we know it, if they are hungry or uncomfortable or in pain we definitely know it.
When we pray, individually or as a church community, we are in a place where heaven and earth overlap, a holy place and we need to come to that place as ourselves, not as the person we wish we were or we think God wants to see.
We need to come to God in prayer honestly with our joys and our sorrows, our hopes and our fears and our pain and anger. Especially our pain and anger. If you worry about bringing your pain and anger to God then read the psalms, you could start with psalm 137 which begins with lament and ends in anger, or psalm 22, the start of which Jesus spoke from the cross.
If we are honest with God and bring our deepest hopes and fears, pain and anger to God in prayer, into the light of God’s loving gaze then the Holy Spirit, who does not come uninvited, can work in and through us to heal us and this broken world.
Do not be afraid to be yourself before God in prayer.
Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector could be the subject of a long sermon on its own. The Pharisee in this parable is a paragon of virtue, fasting and tithing as he does, whereas the tax collector is a collaborator with a hated occupying military power and is probably corrupt and a thief. The tax collector by his posture and words is ashamed of who and what he is and knows his need of God’s mercy, grace and forgiveness. The Pharisee, while not a hypocrite, claims status and standing before God as a result of his own actions with no insight into his own need of God’s mercy and grace.
When we come to God in prayer, when we put ourselves under God’s loving gaze, we are not to trust in our own efforts to be worthy but in God’s mercy and grace.
Similarly we must never feel that we are not good enough to come to God in prayer, to ask for forgiveness, for healing and wholeness. When we put ourselves into God’s light and gaze God does not look away.
Many of us will have had the experience of being let down by someone and then finding it almost impossible to look at them.
To turn our head away from them is an act of rejection because they have treated us so badly.
God never does that. God never looks away and is ready to accept us, to show mercy and forgive us if we admit our need of mercy and forgiveness.
Come to God in prayer trusting in what God has done for us, for each of us, through Jesus Christ.
And so to the parable of the widow and the unjust judge. I love this woman who despite her vulnerability within her society with no menfolk to plead for her is so tenacious in her demand for justice that the unjust judge gives in.
This is a parable, not an allegory. God is not an unjust judge, but Jesus is encouraging us to be persistent in prayer, never giving up because of who God is, because of God’s persistent, unshakable and everlasting love for us.
This is not to say that every specific request we make to God will be granted but God will always listen to the prayer of our hearts with love and mercy and we can trust God to bring about justice. Because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we know that God’s kingdom of justice and mercy will come, Jesus calls us to persist in praying for that day.
With the help of the Holy Spirit we are to be like the widow in our prayer life hoping against all the odds, persistent, determined and relentless, we are to recognise and be confident that we are able to come to God in prayer because of God’s mercy and love alone,
we are to be ourselves before God unafraid to bring anything to God in prayer,
and we are to be prepared to be challenged and changed as through prayer we see the world as God sees it and we are drawn into God’s work of justice, mercy and peace for all people and for all creation.
So let us persist in praying and working for the coming of God’s kingdom in the sure and certain hope that it will come.