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A Sermon from Sherborne
The third of five addresses for Compline at Sherborne Abbey on the Mondays of Lent 2020,
John 2. 1-11: On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
I said last week that, in one of my remaining Lent talks, I wanted “to tackle head-on the sometimes vexed issue of intercessory prayer – how do we prevent it from becoming a Christmas list sent up the chimney to Santa Claus?” That is what I want to do today.
But first, a disclaimer. I don’t want you to think of “intercessory prayer” as a category by itself. It is simply part of the whole realm of prayer, and should constantly overlap with other parts of that realm. So if you keep a prayer list, remember that not a shopping list. It is far more, and far deeper, than that.
A former Chaplain of my Cambridge college, and later an Anglican monk, Harry Williams said at a retreat I attended over forty years ago, “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.”
St Paul saw this clearly when he wrote to Timothy at the height of the persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Nero, urging him 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. Lord, my son is upset and anxious about losing his job. Lord, Mary has so much pain and is frightened of going to see the doctor. Lord, Christians in South Sudan are killing one another. Lord, for peace in Syria at last. 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, who is alive and reigns now and for ever, one God, world without end. Amen.