Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Trinity: Prayer – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 24 July 2022 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes. (Colossians Ch 2: v 6 – 15; Luke Ch 11: v 1 – 13)
As a raconteur Jesus was clearly most engaging – straightforward, humorous, full of vivid anecdotes, a pleasure to listen to; and no doubt to watch too, with an eyebrow raised here, a quick side glance there, laughter in his eyes. I like his quirky illustrations to serious subjects. Elsewhere, when talking about the need for persistence in prayer, he gives us a portrait of an idle oaf of a judge who cannot be bothered to sort out a poor widow’s case: she is owed money and needs to be heard in court to retrieve it, so pesters him about it. Eventually he gives in and hears her case and she receives justice.
In today’s Gospel, with a similar message, we hear of a man receiving a guest rather late – the traveller presumably using the cool of the evening for his journey. His friend is bound by the laws of hospitality to look after him but has no bread to set before him – something of a disaster. So he goes round next door to knock up his neighbour and ask to be lent some loaves. The neighbour is having none of it: he’s far too comfortably installed in bed and doesn’t want to get up, even to help his friend. But when next door persists, he does come and give him the loaves he needs – probably to get some peace.
So, says Jesus, we cannot be half-hearted about prayer: persistence is needed. We understand that he is not really comparing God to a lazy judge or an indolent neighbour: he is giving us a graphic and playful image to enliven the teaching. Prayer is important and we should keep at it, not to bully God into giving us what we think we want, but to engage with Him in conversation; and to learn.
Consider the Collect we shall be using in four weeks’ time:
“Let your merciful ears, O Lord, be open to the prayers of your humble servants; and that they may obtain their petitions make them to ask such things as shall please you ….”
Asking, suggests the Collect, is an important aspect of our relationship with God. But it makes clear that we are not trying to change his mind or to give us something reluctantly. So why ask? Several years ago, Simon Oliver, now a canon of Durham and a professor of Divinity there, wrote about this collect in the Church Times, and give this homely example. He and his wife were having a battle with their 2-year-old son over chocolate mousse, insisting that he eat his carefully prepared first course before embarking on the mousse. “By granting certain requests and not others,” he wrote “as parents we are attempting to mould our child’s will so that he begins to desire and request what is good and truly enjoyable …. Nevertheless, it remains important that he continues to ask, for, in asking, he learns what to ask for …. So, by living prayerfully, we learn to discern, in the pattern of our asking and receiving, all that God desires to give us. In this way, as C S Lewis once famously remarked, prayer changes us, not God.”
Asking is never in vain, even if the request is not granted. There are, though, some requests which might be frowned upon by purists, as exemplified by the following conversation:
“Vicar, will you pray for Annabelle next Sunday?
“Certainly I shall.”
The following week: “How is Annabelle? Would you like me to pray for her again?”
“No thanks, Vicar: she won at 6-to-4 on.”
As well as including “our daily bread” in its petitions, the Lord’s Prayer stresses the paramount importance of forgiveness. Indeed it is a theme that runs all through St Luke’s Gospel, and is central to Jesus’ teaching and life. That is why Paul ends our reading from the Epistle to the Colossians with a triumphant declaration of the forgiveness that Jesus has brought about for them – and us – on the cross. They had been, Paul says, led astray by people claiming that Gnosticism was the way forward; that is, only secret knowledge and formulae, very complicated and handed down orally, could break the spell of fate pre-ordained in the stars; half-baked claptrap, Paul says. Others were tempting the Colossian Christians back into the Jewish laws and practices that he had freed them from. Others, still, claimed that Jesus was not unique nor was his teaching sufficient.
All of this Paul slices through with a clean stroke. Jesus spoke plainly and engagingly: the essence of his teaching is clear, and centres round love, compassion and unconditional forgiveness:
“And when you were dead in trespasses … God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses. He erased the record that stood against us … setting it aside, nailing it to the cross.”
The rich mosaic that is prayer can include what we ask of God and learn from Him; worshipping Him – “Hallowed be thy Name;” – and giving Him thanks; but also perceiving and confessing our sins, which seeks, and finds, forgiveness, as we are assured.
George Herbert weaves a tapestry of works around Prayer in his sonnet, which concludes:
“Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.