Trinity 9 ~ Praying daily for spiritual bread
It’s been a busy week – a lot has happened. Last Sunday we welcomed Archdeacon Luke and we celebrated the festival of St Mary Magdalene. Choristers got their awards, communion assistants got their licenses and Jameson got the FA cup – well sort of. In the evening we celebrated the eve of St Mary Magdalene by having another party, at which we discussed where to go on the next parish pilgrimage, and we decided to go to Israel next August. Brochures will soon be available, and we’ll have a meeting on September 8th to sign folk up.
And then, the following day – last Monday 22nd, St Mary Magdalene’s day itself - we had two parties in the Vicarage garden. The children’s music club had a party with pizza and cake, and this evolved into a parish party to celebrate the actual feast day of St Mary Magdalene. As the children went home, the adults arrived, and while we were in the Vicarage garden the news came through that a prince – soon to be named Prince George - had been born. The BBC twitter feed is pretty much instantaneous, so it was within seconds of the announcement that we are able to raise our glasses accordingly. The little boy who will one day be King was born on St Mary Magdalene’s Day – our day. So, Monday was a festive day – and an historic day, for sure.
Then on Tuesday I went off to the Annual gathering of the Associated Board Music Exams folk, and from there up to Derbyshire to introduce the new edition of (Hymns) Ancient and Modern to the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland. I stayed at the conference until Thursday evening, but had to run away to catch the last train to London, which leaves Derby at the remarkably early time of 9:20 pm.
Speaking of trains though, that was the feast day of another Saint – St James – Santiago – and we have all been horrified to see images of a terrible train crash in Northern Spain – in Santiago in fact. Some of us have been to Santiago, and the irony of a train crash in Santiago around St James’ day is striking and painful, especially to those of us who have sensed the great spirituality of the Cathedral, and the camaraderie of the Camino – the pilgrims’ way that runs from Northern France across the top of Spain to the ancient cockleshell pilgrims’ destination of St James’ Cathedral, with its huge doors and botafumero – the gigantic incense swinger.
On Friday, another special day dawned – following quite close on the heels of her twin sister Sophie, married here last month, David and Gill Bird’s other daughter Sophie married here, and what a lovely occasion that was. And then the following day - yesterday, over the water in Chingford, our organist Rory married his Nicola, and I went over to preach and sing at that. It too was wondrous: another party! And there were a number of us from here there too to support Rory and Nicola.
So now, after an action packed week, I for one, am partied out – although I notice that my Maria has her birthday party in a few days time! But there is a bit of time to calm down and take stock. And we all need to do that sometimes. We need to do it today after an action packed week, but there are other times we need to do it too. We all have times when we need to pause and chill out.
Which brings me to our readings today. It might seem ironic that our Old Testament reading is a rather unsavoury indictment against the people of Israel, on behalf of whom the prophet Hosea makes a symbolic union with a prostitute and has children who are to be called names that reflect the fact that God has withdrawn his love from the people of Israel and transferred it to those the Kingdom of Judah. All a bit ironic for the week of a royal birth and a couple of weddings! And rather high octane stressful stuff, for Hosea and for his readers.
And then we heard some fairly heavy exhortation from St Paul, calling us to holiness, to resistance of evil and bad philosophy. And then in the gospel we have the parable of the persistent man who nags his friend until he eventually caves in and gets up in the night to give him food.
There is much that might be said about each and all of these passages, but it is actually the bit I haven’t mentioned that gives us an insight and a way through the high octane faith that we have heard about today. Because in the midst of it all, we hear of Jesus teaching his disciples how to step out of the hustle and bustle and pray.
Why does he do this, we might wonder? Well, the answer is obvious – he teaches them how to pray because they don’t know how to. And he teaches them to pray because it is not easy. And today, many people do not know how to pray, and today, it is possibly even less easy than it was then.
With so much activity going on all around us, news bulletins, personal lives that are hectic and fraught, diaries that are full and so much to worry and care about, it is not easy to find time to pray, and then even if we do, we don’t quite know what to do. And in our results-based culture, we seem to feel that there are right and wrong ways to pray, and that the measure of the ‘success’ of prayer is somehow based on whether anything happens either during or as a result of praying. And that can lead to folk giving up – because the expectations they bring to prayer are not met, or because they simply don’t know what to expect but feel they ought to expect something.
And yet, Jesus told his disciples to “Seek first the kingdom.” Praying is never simply a shopping list. Rather is a way of putting ourselves into the path of God’s plan.
We are, of course, encouraged to make petitions to God. It is natural to want and need to do so. But it’s how we ask and what we ask for that is important. The Lord’s prayer shows us that we should only ask the Father for ‘enough’. We should ask for basic physical needs: Daily bread.
And God knows there are plenty of people who really need to ask for that and whose prayer is not always met. Some people do not have daily bread, and this reminds us what a big deal it is that we invariably do. Implied in the Lord’s Prayer is a thanksgiving that we have, in fact, had our daily bread. In seeking there is finding, and in finding there is thanksgiving.
We are taught collectively to confess our sins, and to ask for God’s forgiveness. In praying this part of the Lord’s Prayer, we are buying into the great commandment - to love our neighbours as ourselves. Which, like prayer itself, it is not easy. But it is possible and Christ shows us the way. There’s something else that happened this week – a man was convicted of brutally and senselessly murdering a Sheffield organist on Christmas Eve, and it was striking and inspiring to see the dignity with which his widow spoke of Christian forgiveness. There is a lady who has learnt about prayer the hard way.
She was brought to the time of trial – the time of extreme testing, which is what ‘temptation’ refers to in the Lord’s Prayer. All her life, every day she might have prayed ‘do not bring me to the time of trial’ and yet that is exactly what happened on Christmas Eve as her husband walked to worship, never to return.
Jesus tells us that we should ask for his protection when things attack us and threaten our faith. Paul sees it as unseen forces in high places. And many Christian teachers do warn of an active and powerful enemy who prowls about, looking for prey to devour. This might remind us of CS Lewis’s brilliant satire The Screwtape Letters, in which he explores and personifies the powers of temptation and darkness. And perhaps this calls to mind Mike Appleby’s superb dramatisation of this, performed several times in this very church.
Praying not to be tested, helps us understand that it is at times of desolation that we need God’s protection to help us to cling on to the rock of faith.
In all this we have to realize that prayer is not like ‘putting coins in a vending machine.’ It is not a case of putting our prayer in the right slot, pushing the right button, and waiting for the vending machine God to spit out exactly what we want. Many people give up on prayer – and on God – when the stark reality of this hits them.
God is not a vending machine. Prayer is a relationship -- an intimate, loving, caring relationship. It is a two-way relationship. It’s the wedding season at the moment – and the similarities between prayer and marriage are not so far-fetched. Sometimes, as in any relationship between people who know each other well, there isn’t anything to say. Sometimes prayer can be about what is not said rather than what is. Sometimes, we are too tired, or too excited, or too frightened, or too confused to articulate prayer. The God who loves us knows and understands this.
But that’s why he gave us the Lord’s Prayer. We can learn it, and say it when we don’t have words of our own. It covers all the bases. It is like a love poem that has special meaning for a couple. The words mean far more than they actually say.
The Lord’s Prayer covers us when we are busy, when we are depressed, when we are sad, when we are elated, when we are celebrating, when we are tired, and it covers us when we don’t know how to pray. So it is very much a prayer for this week and for every week, for today and every day.
For in itself, it is our Daily Bread.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 28/07/13