A Sermon from Sherborne

Ask, search, knock

A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 28 July 2019 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


Several times in St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus not only teaches his disciples how to pray; he also encourages them to be persistent in prayer. In today’s Gospel reading [Luke 11.1-13] he uses the analogy of a neighbour who comes knocking at the door at midnight to beg a loaf of bread, as an unexpected guest has just arrived. It’s not just the lateness of the hour that makes the other neighbour reluctant to get up. It’s that in the tiny houses of the day the floor of the communal living room would have been cleared and all the bedrolls placed next to each other, and everyone would be disturbed if the householder got up to go to find a loaf. But he will respond if the neighbour is persistent. And if that is true of ordinary people, how much more can we expect God to respond to persistent prayer. All we have to do – but it is all – is to “ask, search and knock”.

Rabbi Lionel Blue, of happy memory, used to tell the story of the Jew who went regularly to the synagogue and would face the Ark, the Aron Hakodesh, where the scroll of the Torah is kept, and would pray “Lord, let me win the Lottery”. He did this for weeks, but never won. But he was persistent: “Lord, let me win the Lottery” – and eventually the voice of the Lord came from the Ark: “Moshe, meet me halfway. Buy a ticket.”

So the first prerequisite of answered prayer is that we should pray in the first place. Do you pray? Do you pray regularly? Do you pray persistently? St Luke quite deliberately places this teaching about prayer immediately after Jesus has gently chided Martha, who has complained that her sister Mary is not helping her with all the domestic chores. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things … Mary has chosen the better part” [Luke 10. 41-2].

We need to recover the practice of prayer, every day. There is an urgency about Jesus’ teaching about prayer which I think we somehow have lost. Perhaps we have been, as the Bible puts it, ‘at ease in Zion’ for too long. We know we should pray for the needs of the world, but the world has so many needs and the needy are so far away. It is only when tragedy strikes us or those near and dear to us that we are provoked into more persistent prayer.

In his little book Tensions, the late Harry Williams, an Anglican monk, wrote some wise words about the problem of prayer:

We often divide prayer up into departments: meditation or contemplation, for instance, is one department while intercession is another. From the practical point of view this division may often be necessary, but we should recognize that it is no more than a division of convenience. For our communion with God in prayer can never be for ourselves alone. I cannot enter into the presence of God only for my own sake, or only for the sake of my family, or only for the parish, or only for the Anglican Communion, or only for human beings. Being human I shall naturally and rightly be more concerned for the people close to me than for others. It is stupid to try to disguise this fact from myself. I must admit it in my prayer with gratitude as human closeness is a very precious gift of God and it means that I am inevitably more concerned for John and Betty than for the diocese of Bariaboolagar and Sekfi Tumdila, the bishop. At the same time it remains true that God’s presence with me is for mankind and for the universe. In prayer I put myself deliberately in the presence of God’s outgoing love, and when I thus receive His outgoing love I become its agent and distributor so that through me it goes outward to all things. True prayer is thus never a form of self-culture. If [our] prayers make [us] less interested in, less concerned about, less fellow-feeling with, the needs and agonies of the world, then there is something very wrong with [our] prayers. True prayer is always sacrificial in the sense that it is concerned to give and to surrender, not to get spiritual satisfactions in selfish disregard of others. 

This is why we should never put prayer into one compartment of our lives, and action into another. Prayer and action are one. As Harry Williams puts it, ‘To pray is a form of the verb to do, while to do is a form of the verb to pray.’ This is something Jesus’ first disciples had to learn. Remember, they were disciples before Jesus taught them how to pray and how to act. To be disciples they did not first have to achieve perfect lives. To be Christians they did not first have to understand everything. All they did – but it was all – was to link their lives to the life of Jesus Christ, and everything else followed. They started from the fact that Jesus loved them, and from him they learned something about loving. And from loving him they learned how to love one another, and from loving one another they learned how to radiate the love of God to all with whom they had to do. Living followed on from loving. Behaving followed on from believing. Prayer and action becoming increasingly intertwined.

And so it is for us. We don’t, thank God, have to achieve some state of holiness or live a good life before God will have anything to do with us; we don’t have to earn our place in the company of God’s people. All that has been achieved for us by Jesus Christ, who opened wide his arms for us on the Cross and brought us the love and the grace and the forgiveness of God. That love and that grace and that forgiveness are his gifts of love to us. When we respond to love with love, then from that will follow a desire to live lovingly, and so to order our lives that they will continue to grow in love. That is why we need to place ourselves on the bench of prayer in the workshop of the Master, so that as we grow in prayer more honest with ourselves about ourselves, then we will be more prepared for him to take us as we are and shape and fashion us into what he would have us be. It takes persistence. It takes effort. But however tentatively and however hesitantly you put your hand in his hand and entrust your life into his keeping, you will find all his love and grace and strength beginning to grow in you – and from that small first act of commitment will come a life empowered, a life transfigured, a life transformed. And for that, thanks be to God.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 28/07/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne