A Sermon from Sherborne

For Rogation Sunday:

For Rogation Sunday: 

Today in the Anglican calendar is Rogation Sunday. “Rogation” comes from the Latin verb rogare, meaning “to ask”. In the Book of Common Prayer the Gospel for today comes from John 16, where Jesus says “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it to you … ask, and ye shall receive”. And because of that, the tradition grew up in England of using this Sunday to ask God’s blessing on the growing crops, and the recently-born livestock – often accompanied by a procession round the fields of the parish.


Asking is one dimension – although only one dimension – of praying. It is also the dimension most readily abused, or perhaps I should say, misunderstood. It is precisely not like a child’s Christmas list sent up the chimney to Santa Claus. It’s not a shopping list. It’s not a wants list. Intercessory prayer is far more, and far deeper, than that.


When St Paul wrote to Timothy at the height of the persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Nero, he urged Timothy to ensure “first of all that petitions, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be offered for all men; for sovereigns and all in high office, that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in full observance of religion and high standards of morality.” [1 Timothy 2. 1-2].  Paul did not want Christianity to be an individualistic, private, hole-in-the-corner affair; he did not believe that God was interested only in the fag-end of life after everything to do with politics and society had been subtracted. No: he believed that the whole of life was of concern to God, and should be offered to God in our prayers. In other words, the agenda for your prayers has to be set by the world.


Yet too often we narrow prayer down to little more than ‘my life’ and ‘my concerns’ – and then it becomes no more than a shopping list of what I want – for myself or for others. Even worse, sometimes we treat God as some kind of heavenly pharmacist, dispensing the prescriptions that we have written for ourselves and for others around us.


Prayer should never be like that. When many years ago I visited the Anglican Sisters of the Love of God at their Fairacres Convent in Oxford, I asked one of the nuns about her life of prayer. They are an enclosed order who spend much of their time in intercession for others. “Oh”, she said, “I pray like Mary at the wedding at Cana in Galilee.” Seeing my confusion – I had no memory of Mary praying at the wedding feast – she pealed with laughter. “Of course Mary prayed. She saw that the wine had run out and she turned to her son Jesus and said ‘They have no wine.’ Not ‘Can you rustle up a couple of cases of champagne and a few dozen bottles of claret?’ but simply ‘They have no wine.’ How he answered that prayer was the Lord’s business: Mary simply entrusted the problem to him. And that is what the prayer of faith should be like.”


So, then, when you pray do not start by telling the Lord what is your diagnosis of the problem and what is your prescription for solving it. Try simply entrusting the problem to him. “For Elizabeth our Queen, and all set in authority under her. “For the Government in this troubled time.” “Lord, for those who have been bereaved by COVID-19.” “Lord, for all the staff of the National Health Service and of our care homes.” “Lord, for my son who is worried that his business is going under.” “Lord, for all those wonderful people in our shops and pharmacies and supermarkets who have been keeping going all this time.” “Lord, for our schools and universities, for teachers and students, and for the process of unlocking education.” And so on.


It is all so very simple, provided the prayer comes from the heart. But it must also be prayer that is well-informed. Don’t just pray “For the Middle East” or “For the problems of the world.” God doesn’t need to be taken on a Cook’s tour of the world. He made it, after all. What he needs is for you to be a channel of his grace to specific problems and focussed needs. That is why my friends at Fairacres Convent are so very well informed, for all that they are enclosed nuns. They take and they read the newspapers that have news in them – not all do – and they listen carefully to the radio. Then they turn all that information into prayer. ‘The News’ is the raw material of prayer. And when we follow their example, we like them are opened up to the love of God, to loving our fellow human beings of every race and colour and creed, and to forgetting our own trivial preoccupations and concerns.


The Sisters of the Love of God pray like this, as should we, because they know that Jesus is the one mediator between us and the Father. That he has, as it were, taken our hand in one hand and the Father’s hand in the other and united us in his body on the Cross. It is at that point, the Cross, that the real business gets done. The great theologian Karl Barth put it like this: To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” 


Prayer is perhaps the most seditious act we can ever commit, because at the Cross you and I can take the needs of the world to God, and pray for sovereigns and rulers, for tyrants and dictators, and for victims and captives and all who suffer, knowing that at the Cross God hears, and enters into all that suffering, and in his own way brings to bear his love and mercy upon all that evil, to redeem it and to establish in its place his justice and his righteousness. And for that, thanks be to God.


The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 17/05/2020
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne