The Primacy of Prayer

Readings

1 Samuel 17:37-50 and Mark 9: 9,14-29

Both David and Jesus faced what seemed impossible odds. A handsome young lad, ruddy and with beautiful eyes, so we read (1 Sam 16:12), pitched against the gigantic Goliath about 9 foot in height and armed to the teeth! Or one person faced with a violent and berserk young man whom a crowd of willing and experienced helpers had failed to restrain or help. But they both triumphed in spite of the odds. So what was their secret?

That was what Jesus’ disciples wanted to know when they tackled him later in private: ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ Jesus responded: ‘This kind can come out only through prayer.’ (Mk 9:28f)

Now I am quite sure that the disciples had prayed over the young man and maybe at some length. So what made the difference? It certainly was not any special formula of prayer that Jesus knew and that they did not. I think the difference was that Jesus’ whole life was rooted in prayer.

So throughout the Gospels we see Jesus praying before doing. And then, after doing something returning to prayer. At his baptism Jesus is praying (Lk 3:21) and instead of dashing into his ministry he spends 40 forty days in the wilderness where his prayer is accompanied by the devil, wild beasts and angels (Mk 1:12-13). Only then does he make himself known to people. But when he meets with great success and demands, he goes to pray by himself early in the morning and decides to move on (Mk 1:35ff). He spends a whole night in prayer before choosing the twelve apostles from amongst his followers and sending them out (Mk 3:13-19). Jesus continually seeks out times of quiet, accompanied by his disciples (Mk 4:35f; 6:45f, and it was while he was praying in a certain place, that after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ And so He said to them, ‘When you pray, say: ‘Our Father …’ (Lk 11:1ff). Jesus takes three of them up to a mountain top where he is transfigured or transformed before them whilst … you’ve guessed it … whilst praying (Lk 9:29). It is after that episode that he encounters the sick young man and only a little later he set his face to go to Jerusalem (Lk 9:51). And what does Jesus do before facing his death on the cross? They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took with him Peter and James and John … he said to them, ‘… remain here, and keep awake.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed … (Mk 14:32ff)

I believe that these are just the illustrative and highly significant examples of prayer in Jesus’ life. There would have been a daily practice of prayer for Jesus – returning to his Father God. No matter how busy he was Jesus’ priority was always this returning to prayer.

In the story of David and Goliath one could easily think that a bold and brash young man just got lucky. But his declared confidence was in God: ‘The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine … You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand’. (1 Sam 17:37,45f). This was the young lad, who alone with the sheep, had communed with God and traditionally composed some of the Psalms. His was a young life already rooted in prayer.

Some of the Psalms bear witness to how David returned to the Lord throughout his life. Sadly as he grew older he seems to have lost that habit and his effectiveness as a ruler and as a father declined.

The priority for a Priest and any Christian is this returning to God and the life of prayer. It is all too easy in this busy, pressurised life to neglect prayer. We tell ourselves that we need to be getting on and not wasting our time. But these readings affirm that prayer should be our priority and not what, where, how and who is doing what. And then, out of prayer will flow the what, the where, the how and the who.

William Sirr, known as William of Glasshampton, who founded an Anglican monastery, wrote this about the Eucharist and prayer and life: It is no good to distribute unconsecrated bread to the people: the life must be lifted up before it is given out. In Jacob’s vision (of his ladder) we are told of the ascending angels first, of the descending angels second.

When I read a biography of Eric Liddell, the Scottish Olympic 400m Champion (portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire), his Christian character, work and witness was put down to the time he spent each day with God.

And have you noticed the order of the Jesus two great commandments, which we often hear at the beginning of our communion services: The first commandment is this: ‘You shall love the Lord your God …’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

And so how can we learn to pray? It is not an easy task: especially for those of us running a home, caring for children and family, shouldering a demanding job and numerous anxieties, or struggling with ill-health. Even those of us who have got more time to play with curiously find it difficult to get down to prayer and stick at it and find many other things to fill our time with! None of this struggle should be surprising – for when Jesus cleared his diary for forty days and forty nights Satan was there trying to divert him off course and we are told when that time was up: When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. (Lk 4:13)

And as though opposition in ourselves and from without is not enough – we struggle to know how to pray? The disciples voiced that very difficulty when they said to Jesus, whom they had seen praying so often, ‘Lord, teach us to pray …’ At its simplest prayer just means chatting to God where and wherever we are with whatever comes into our minds. But what about those regular times of quiet Jesus kept. Presumably if Jesus needed them so do we! What do we do during those?

Well there are aids around to help us. That’s why I was delighted when Hazel shared last week about Lectio 365. If you use a smart phone you can search for it and download the app in the Google Play Store or the iPhone equivalent. That app will give you a short time of prayer and Bible reading for morning and evening – to read or to have a recording read to you. But there are other possibilities with phones and computers, or, if you don’t do smart phones or computers, there are a few suggestions printed with copies of my sermon here in church or to be downloaded with my sermon from our church website.

In all of the ups and downs of life and in all the ups and downs of trying to find space for prayer – let us remember that God is with us day by, even if we cannot feel him there and delights to respond to our cries for help. Remember the words of Jesus: ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.’ (Mt 7:7)

So let us be quiet together for a few moments.

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to
him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray …’

Imagine that all that hinders us from praying is like that giant Goliath – standing tall and menacing – seemingly impossible to overcome. David said: ‘The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine … You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand’

‘Lord, teach us to pray …’ Amen.

Resources:

Scripture Union produce two sets of printed Bible Reading Notes for adults: Daily Bread &
Encounter with God. They cost £19 for a year – and the next quarter starts in October. Ask me about those and I could get you some. Alternatively you can get them and digital versions of them for £4.99. Go to their website: https://content.scriptureunion.org.uk/bible-reading-guides. There are also materials for children and young people.

Scripture Union also do a free daily email for free called Word Alive: https://content.scriptureunion.org.uk/wordlive/alive-light – go to the bottom of the page and click on the link to request it.

A simpler possibility is to have emailed to you each day a thought and scripture verse from the writings of an inspiring RC priest Henri Nouwen: https://henrinouwen.org/ – go to the bottom and fill in link for daily emails.

If you want something ‘more Church of England’ you can: either get a paper copy of Reflections for Daily Prayer (£16.99) – this starts in Advent (end of November/beginning of December), but I have a current copy that I am not using for anyone to have. After that you can order it from Book Stop in Tavistock; or there is an app for this, but I haven’t found it very good. Reflections also contains, inside the front cover, a simple Morning Prayer to use; and, on the last pages, ‘before bed’ night prayers, often called Compline.

Angelic Waiters

The Spirit immediately drove (Jesus) out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Mark 1:12f.

I’ve always had a problem with Lent, or at least with the way I have been encouraged to keep it, or by the way I have interpreted that encouragement.

If I’m honest, I’ve always struggled to maintain my spiritual life throughout the whole year – to pray, to read my Bible and to live out my Christian life, loving family and neighbour. Then along comes Lent and we are encouraged to give something pleasurable up, and to do something extra – a book to read, another group to attend, to find more time to pray. It has often felt like “putting the last straw on the camel’s back”! Truth be told, I have always struggled to add more to what I am already struggling to do. And being a sucker for punishment, I’ve always tended to think that if these additional things are so good for me then surely I should be doing them the rest of the year. Does that ring any bells with you? Are you glad when Lent is over and normal service is resumed?

So what is Lent really for? The Spirit immediately drove (Jesus) out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts … With that and just a few other words Mark sums up the brief period between Jesus Baptism and the start of his public Ministry. But they can be taken as a summary of Jesus’ whole life. For a brief period, the Son of God, our Saviour, driven by the Spirit of God comes into this wilderness of a world, confronting Satan, the accuser, or under-miner of all that is good, and is surrounded by the wild beasts, those who cry out, “Crucify!” and nail him to a cross. Those words can also sum up the Christian’s life, living in what can seem a hostile environment to faith; facing the accuser who constantly tells you what a failure you are; and encountering countless other fears and challenges to faith, not least thinking that it was following what you thought was the leading of God’s Spirit that got you into the mess you now found yourself in.

5. Angels come to give praise and worship to God.However, I left out what maybe the most important phrase of Mark’s description of what we might call the first Lent: The Spirit immediately drove (Jesus) out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. I’ve come to realise that Lent above all is a time to stop struggling; a time to be still and to listen to and hear those angels, those messengers of God; a time to rest and be fed and sustained by those messengers who wait on you – the heavenly “waiters” for the word can mean “waiting on tables.

Many of us are missing pub lunches and restaurant meals – being waited upon and can hardly wait for them to return. Meanwhile, this Lent why not avail yourselves of God’s waiters? His angels – the word means messengers and they don’t usually come with wings and white robes; when the prophet needed feeding it was the ravens who brought him food – his angels will wait upon you whilst you (with a different meaning of the word) wait upon God.

Lent for me is a time to face up to my weaknesses and to accept yet again that I can’t “pull myself up by my own bootstraps”. Lent is a time to learn yet again that God is loving and compassionate and merciful. The Collect or special prayer for Lent emphasizes this nature of the season: Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent …

The words of the prophet Jeremiah are set by the daily lectionary to be read during Lent – and he is a prophet who has many gloomy words to share, who struggles personally with his lot and even argues with God, but amidst all that there are these words that shine out: I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope … I will restore health to you and your wounds will I heal … I will put my law within (you) and I will write it on (your) hearts; and I will be (your) God and (you) shall be my people. (29:11; 30:17; 31:33).

For me Lent is a time not for added struggle, but a time to lay aside things and to allow the angels of God to wait upon us. It is a time to learn afresh that God does indeed love us; a time to learn to love ourselves, to be gentle and compassionate with ourselves. It is this alone that will give us the strength and resources to be led by the Spirit of God back into the world and to live out our Christian lives.

Let us be quiet for a few moments …

The Lord is the everlasting God,

    the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He does not faint or grow weary;

    his understanding is unsearchable.

He gives power to the faint,

    and strengthens the powerless.

Even youths will faint and be weary,

    and the young will fall exhausted;

but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

    they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,

    they shall walk and not faint.                                                 Isaiah 40:28-31

Almighty God,

whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness,

and was tempted as we are, yet without sin:

give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit;

and, as you know our weakness,

so may we know your power to save;

through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, Amen.                        Traditional Collect Lent 1

Water into Wine

Jesus, come! for we invite you,

Guest and Master, Friend and Lord;

now, as once at Cana’s wedding,

speak, and let us hear your word:

lead us through our need or doubting,

hope be born and joy restored…Amen

I’ve just quoted the first verse of  the 20TH CENTURY Epiphany hymn by Christopher Idle. I hadn’t come across it before.

The words seem so appropriate for today.

Of course they focus on today’s reading- the wedding at Cana, but the words, ‘lead us through our need or doubting, hope be born and joy restored’ speak to me while we struggle during the 3rd lockdown and the terrible weather and flooding many have been suffering around the country.

The words of the hymn continue:

Jesus, come! transform our pleasures,

guide us into paths unknown;

bring your gifts, command your servants,

let us trust in you alone:

though your hand may work in secret,

all shall see what you have done.

Jesus, come in new creation,

heaven brought near by power divine;

give your unexpected glory

changing water into wine:

rouse the faith of your disciples

come, our first and greatest sign!

Rouse the faith of your disciples – today we are all disciples together and as we reflect on this, Jesus first miracle, I pray our faith will also be roused and encouraged and hope revived.

Today we have All Age worship so I wanted to involve the youngest child and grandparents in the service. So I am recording this for all those who have chosen to stay at home during the lockdown and this very cold weather. The talk should also be available to download.

 Meanwhile…

In church, I am asking the children to help me (socially distanced, of course,) to work out how much water Jesus really changed from water into finest quality wine. One bucketful? Two bucketsful? 10 bucketsful? No that’s the number of buckets needed for 1 water jar! So, 6 water jars is 60 buckets full of water changed into the best wine!

The final verse goes like this:

Jesus, come! surprise our dullness,

make us willing to receive

more than we can yet imagine,

all the best you have to give:

let us find your hidden riches,

taste your love, believe, and live!

Jesus come! Surprise our dullness.

Yes, I think many of us are finding our lives dull at present- staying at home, not able to visit one another, not able to shop til we drop, no live entertainment, no visits to the pub, no dining out, And in this weather, not much opportunity for walks on the moor, in fact stuck in doors to keep safe, but life can be  very dull.

I am sure life was pretty routine for the disciples too before they met Jesus. They hadn’t witnessed any healing miracles by the time they went to the wedding, only Mary at the wedding, knew of Jesus true nature and ability, so I wonder what was going through the disciples’ minds when they heard their rabbi order the 6 water jars to be filled up to the brim – bucketful after bucketful  of water. But by waiting and watching, Jesus revealed his glory to them, transforming what was about to become a very dull party, with nothing to drink… to the most amazing celebration imaginable.

I want to try to transform your thoughts even more.

My ‘dull’ mind was surprised and delighted in church 2 weeks ago whilst listening to Wendy’s PowerPoint presentation on the baptism of Christ – beginning with some facts about water: how many gallons of water are needed under natural conditions  to produce one slice of bread…11 gallons and so on….finally how much water is needed to water the vines in a vineyard (and so on) to produce, under natural conditions 1 gallon of wine…..she told us (and I believe her and the scientific calculation) 1008 gallons.

In the church on a freezing cold morning, I sat there amazed. Maybe I should have danced for joy, or shouted eureka! But that’s how it felt!

Why, you may ask? I’m afraid our minds can be quite dull and often incapable of believing that Nothing is Impossible for God and often theologians try to explain away the impossible, the supernatural, with a more natural, rational explanation.

I’ve heard this in the past: What Jesus was doing was ‘just speeding up the natural process.’

For example, the natural process of healing – like pressing the button on the remote to fast forward the movie – he speeds up the healing process. Similarly with the transformation of water into wine, he’s just speeding up the natural process of rain falling on the vines to produce grapes and then the fermentation process to produce wine.

During Wendy’s talk, I realised the nonsense of this argument – Those water jars contained a lot of water – each 20-30 gallons, but altogether only a maximum of 180 gallons! That’s nothing like 1008 gallons of water required under natural processes to produce just 1 gallon of wine, in fact it is just over a pints worth. 3 glasses of wine? That would have gone completely unnoticed at the wedding. Instead, Jesus transformed the dull, ordinary everyday water into the equivalent of at least 900 bottles of the best wine, demonstrating to the disciples how he is able to transform our dullness, giving us hope, and abundant life, both now,  and as we abide with him for ever.

Jesus, come! surprise our dullness,

make us willing to receive

more than we can yet imagine,

all the best you have to give:

let us find your hidden riches,

taste your love, believe, and live!

Amen

New Year 2021

Today, anticipating the Epiphany on 6th January, we remember the Wisemen bringing their gifts to the child Jesus. They were foreigners and Magi – the intellectual, scientific and religious experts of the day, but they obeyed the summons; admitted that for all their wisdom they needed guidance. They humbled themselves; and they were open to changing their plans. And they brought as gifts the most costly and precious things they had.

Continue reading “New Year 2021”

Remembrance Sunday 2020

Psalm 46: A reading for Remembrance and Lockdown 2020

1 God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 ‘Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.’
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Continue reading “Remembrance Sunday 2020”

Simon the Pharisee, a woman, and St Luke

I expect that most of us have been to a meal or a party at a friend’s or a relative’s house. We would have been invited with a spoken or a written invitation. When we knocked at the door it would have been opened and we would have been welcomed and our coats taken. We would have been shown in and at some point told where the bathroom or toilet was. When the time came for the meal, if it wasn’t an informal buffet balancing food on our laps, we would have been invited to sit on chairs at a dining table with knives and forks set out before us. And if a neighbour turned up that had not been invited then they would not have been let in.

But if you were going to a meal at a friend’s house in Jesus’ time and country things would
happen somewhat differently. When you arrived you would be greeted with a kiss of welcome, some water would be provided to wash your dirty feet, along with some oil or scent for your head to freshen you up in the hot climate. When the time came for the meal – as it was warm – it would be outside in the courtyard in the shade. And you would not have chairs or cutlery. You would eat reclining, resting on your left arm and using bread in your right hand to scoop up your food. And if there was a famous person present, people who were not invited were perfectly at liberty to drop in to listen to the conversation. That courtyard would have been a bit like a medieval banqueting hall where the important and the plebs were all together.

Remember that background and you may understand our Gospel reading a little bit better – Luke 7:36-50.

At that meal and in that courtyard were two very different people …
[1] Simon the Pharisee was a respectable man and quite proud of himself … he prayed and
read his Bible regularly … he attended synagogue (church) and gave to it and to charities … he was well known and looked up to in the community … he and his family were an example to all.

[2] A Woman, whose name we never learn, appeared to be the exact opposite … she was a
sinner … no one respectable would be seen with her … possibly a prostitute … she was never to be seen at synagogue, though I doubt that she would have been made at all welcome. I wonder which one of these two would fit in easily amongst us? Which would feel welcome or be welcomed?

They were two very different people whose reactions to Jesus were very different …

[1] Simon invited Jesus, but gave him no kiss of welcome, no water to wash his feet. He was
holding back, testing Jesus out … seeing whether Jesus would measure up. And his hesitations about Jesus seemed to be well founded when he allowed that woman to touch him!

[2] The Woman, on the other hand, had seen and heard the love Jesus had for ordinary and
sinful people … not that he accepted their bad lives … he wanted change … but he loved them in spite of it and did not put himself above them. And so she braved the home of the Pharisee, where she knew she would not be welcome, and was overcome as she washed, dried, kissed and anointed Jesus’ feet. It was all very unseemly and embarrassing, but she was beyond caring about what others thought.

It is at this point in the story that we read what I find one of the most ironical verses in the Bible:

“when (Simon) the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man
were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.’” Luke 7:39. What’s the irony? (Simon) the Pharisee … said to himself …(And) Jesus answered him … What Simon did not gamble on was that Jesus not only knew what kind of woman she was, but also what he was thinking.

Jesus said to Simon: “the one who has been forgiven little loves little”. Simon had not wasted his time being a good person … Jesus was happy about that … but Simon had begun to believe that he could be good enough on his own and he began to look down upon others … Simon was a sinner as well and needed God’s forgiveness just as much as that woman.

2000 years later we know his name. What we do not know is whether he found forgiveness and peace of mind. On the other hand, we do not know that woman’s name, but we do know what Jesus said to her: “Your sins are forgiven … Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

“If this man were a prophet, he would have known …” 2000 years later, here and now, Jesus knows and sees what is in each of our hearts … what we are proud of … what we are ashamed of or embarrassed by … but none of us need leave this morning without hearing those words of Jesus: “Your sins are forgiven … Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Words of Jesus’ love and healing which we carry like St Luke the Physician to share with others.

Almighty God, you called Luke the physician,
whose praise is in the gospel,
to be an evangelist and physician of the soul:
by the grace of the Holy Spirit
and through the wholesome medicine of the gospel,
give us your Church the same love and power to heal;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, Amen.

To be a Pilgrim

Gatekeeper Butterfly

We listened to and sang in our hearts, guide me o thou great redeemer, pilgrim through this barren land?…Do you think of yourself as a pilgrim on a journey?

As Christians, I think we should all consider we are pilgrims and our lives a pilgrimage, but there are specific times when we put aside time to travel to a special sacred place and look and listen for signs of God seeking to teach us something new, during the journey as well as at the destination.

Continue reading “To be a Pilgrim”

Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them

Christchurch Brentor           Matthew 18:12-22            6th September 2020

Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.  v.20. That is a very well-known promise that we Christians like to claim as a great encouragement. Commentator William Barclay puts it like this: Jesus is just as much present in the little congregation as in the great mass meeting. He is just as much present at the Prayer Meeting or the Bible Study Group with their handful of people as in the crowded arena. He is not the slave of numbers. He is there wherever faithful hearts meet, however few they may be, for he gives all of himself to each individual person.

Continue reading “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”

Jesus said: ‘Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me’- the example of Saint Damien

As I was meditating on our gospel reading, the words of the great old hymn by Charles Everest kept going through my mind:

Take up thy cross the Saviour said, if thou wouldst my disciple be

Deny thyself, the world forsake, and humbly follow after me.

The words ‘take up thy cross’ come just after Peter has tried to impose his own plans, his own ideas on Jesus and was thoroughly rebuked…..get behind me Satan…..you are setting your mind not on divine things but human things…..Headstrong Peter and the other disciples were sure they knew best and needed to learn to humbly follow and trust God in all circumstances, even if it seems totally counter-intuitive. You’re not in control, or, as Eugene Peterson in the Message paraphrase puts it: Jesus says: You’re not in the driver’s seat, I am- Jesus is! Jesus was calling them, and us too, to a life of self-sacrifice humbly following after him.

Continue reading “Jesus said: ‘Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me’- the example of Saint Damien”

Jesus, Julian of Norwich, St Teresa of Avila & Coronavirus

Feeding The 5000 from www.LumoProject.com

Now when Jesus heard (how John the Baptist had been killed by Herod), he withdrew … in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them … Matthew 14:13f.

Jesus, human being like us, needed space to think and pray and be with his grief for his cousin John. A little later on from this episode and on many other occasions he succeeded in doing just this. But when his plans were thwarted and he was faced with human need he responded with compassion.

Continue reading “Jesus, Julian of Norwich, St Teresa of Avila & Coronavirus”