Essentials of Prayer


(Psalm 84, 1-7; Luke 18, 9-14)


Imagine the scene. It is either dawn or mid-afternoon and the sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people of Israel is being offered in the Temple in Jerusalem. As the proper time arrives, the great gates are opened and the people stream in to witness the sacrifice and to offer prayers to God.


There is the smell of many people; of the lamb who is sacrificed; of warm blood as it is splashed on the altar, then the smell of smoke and burning meat as the sacrifice is burnt on the altar, and of the incense as it is placed on the coals and rises towards the heavens.


There are the sounds of the animals and birds used for sacrifice, of cymbals and bells and trumpets that punctuate the ritual, of many voices speaking their prayers aloud as the incense rises.


Into this scene walk two men. They are both well dressed. Both take care to stand apart from all the other worshippers. But their attitudes are very different.


One man is a Pharisee, a leader and teacher of the faithful. He is careful to stand a distance from all the other worshippers. He must be careful to keep himself untainted by any contact with ‘the people of the land’, those who cannot or do not keep themselves ritually clean; even to brush his coat against their clothes would destroy his state of ritual cleanliness.


He stands erect and full of confidence as he addresses his prayer to the Almighty. As he looks around him, he notices the other man also standing apart, and uses him as an example. He makes his own assessment of his morality, and it is not a kind one; he brands him a rogue and a swindler – and then throws in adulterer for good measure. He is attacking a stereotype, and does not see beyond his own prejudiced image.   His prayer turns into a statement of his own religious superiority to everyone else there. He thanks God briefly, but then goes on to distinguish himself from the ‘great unwashed’ around him, boasting of doing more than the law demands by fasting and tithing more than is required.


The other man, the tax collector, stands apart from the others, not to keep himself unsullied, but because he feels himself unworthy to be among the faithful of Israel. As he too prays aloud, he doesn’t dare lift his eyes from the ground, even to watch the incense ascending, or the priest blessing. He beats his chest (a gesture which was usually done only by women as they mourned a death) to show his anguish and distress at his own unworthiness to offer any prayer to God. When he finally voices his prayer, it is a simple cry to God “Lord, have mercy on me” or “Lord, make atonement for me”. He has come to pray at the time of the sacrifice, because he believes only the sacrifice of a perfect creature can atone for his sins.


At the end of the ritual, the two men leave, along with everyone else. Perhaps outwardly there is no difference. But, as Jesus tells their story, he reverses the order in which he describes them. The tax-collector, who showed contrition and humility is spoken of first. His prayer has been answered; he has been forgiven and he is justified and judged righteous. The Pharisee who felt himself so superior, is placed second now; his own self-righteousness has hardened his heart; because he is so confident in his own actions, he is not open to God’s grace. His attendance at the sacrifice was a waste of time. He returns in exactly the same state as he went up to the Temple, unjustified and unforgiven.


As Luke’s introduction to the parable makes plain, it is first of all about the inner attitude of the disciple. The attitude of superiority to others shown by the Pharisee in this parable was criticised by others in Jesus’ time. The Assumption of Moses contained similar sentiments to the parable and Rabbi Hillel wrote: “Keep not aloof from the congregation and trust not in thyself until the day of thy death, and judge not thy fellow until thou art thyself come to his place.”


According to Luke, this parable was told to the disciples on the way to Jerusalem. Throughout this journey, Jesus is shown trying to teach his disciples about Kingdom values. Chief among those values is an attitude of humility, of service to others, of acknowledging everyone’s equal reliance on the grace of God. In the parables he uses to highlight these values, he uses some strange chief characters – a Samaritan, an unjust steward, a nagging widow – and now a tax collector. A faithful Jewish male would have considered himself superior to all of these – but Jesus uses each of them as an example of what God regards as worthy.


Perhaps in Luke’s church there were also people who regarded themselves as more righteous, more worthy of God’s ear, more certain of salvation than others in their congregation. We know that the early church was made up of Jews and Gentiles, of men and women, of rich and poor. This parable may have been included by Luke to bring them up short and make them think again about their attitudes.


And what of today’s Church? In churches, as in all human institutions, there is a tendency for people to reject others, and to try to keep themselves separate from those who (they think!) fail to meet the standards that God requires. We seem to have particular problems with this in the Anglican Church. We have provinces in the worldwide Anglican Communion who refuse to attend meetings with representatives of other provinces where gay people have been elected as bishops by their congregations, or where gay couples have been offered marriage or church blessings on their partnerships. In the Church of England itself, we also have groups who have set up up ‘societies’ within the church, to ensure they can worship separately from those who accept women to the role of Bishop.


Aren’t these actions the modern equivalent of standing by yourself before the altar of sacrifice and pulling your cloak tightly around you lest you become contaminated by those you have judged to be wrong? Are not these groups in danger of basing their confidence on their own right actions, as the Pharisee did, rather than acknowledging that all our hopes are based on the teaching, life and death of Christ and the grace of God? Kierkegaard said “The self-assured believer is a greater sinner in the eyes of God than the troubled disbeliever”.


But the parable is also about the right way to pray. The rabbinic documents of the time gave instructions about how a worshipper should pray at the time of the morning or evening sacrifice. He should stand with his hands crossed over his chest and his eyes to the ground, in an attitude of submission to a master or lord. He should first of all articulate praise to God for all his gifts, and then present his own needs.


The Pharisee did neither. He praised God only that he wasn’t like other less worthy people; he didn’t present any petitions to God, since he obviously thought he had everything already. He boasted about his own actions, which went way beyond what was required by the Law. He was the man who has everything – so he really had no need of God. His prayer, though on the surface a thanks to God, was in fact just a request that God confirms his own assessment of himself as righteous.What’s more, he judged others by their outward appearance, and projected his own prejudices on to them.


In contrast, the tax collector had no illusions about himself. He knew his occupation automatically put him outside the circle of the faithful. He beat upon his chest, the place where evil thoughts and emotions were thought to come from at the time, and requested nothing based on his own merits. He did not criticise others, not even the Pharisee who was publicly humiliating him in front of a crowd of worshippers. In his prayer he presented just one petition to God and threw himself entirely on the divine mercy; and because God is merciful, his petition was granted.


Luke places a great emphasis on prayer in his gospel. At every significant moment in the story, prayer is offered to God. He also places great emphasis on the outcast and the sinner, alerting us to Jesus’ message that they are often closer to God than those who think themselves ‘religious’.


How does this story relate to our practice of prayer? Do we begin each time of prayer with giving praise and thanks to God for all we have been given – or do we rush immediately into asking for what we want. Do we recognise our own inadequacies and need of mercy, or do our prayers assume that God operates with the same prejudices and stereotypes as we do?

It is a particular danger in public prayer; we often pray only for ‘people like us’. In our prayers we sometimes act like the Pharisee, condemning those who are different. This can have a devastating effect on those who hear us: I recently read an article by a non-believer who put aside her own feelings to attend a family christening, only to be confronted by someone leading the prayers who asked God to help ‘fight against the rise of secularism and aggressive atheists’, who, he judged, wanted to stop him worshipping and destroy Christianity – which was far from what this woman wanted.


But such attitudes also have the effect of taking us further from the presence of God, rather than closer, as prayer should do. Self-righteousness, particularly when it involves projecting the darker side of ourselves onto others, closes our innermost being to the grace of God. The essence of prayer is to stand before God in a state of spiritual nakedness, to acknowledge what we have been given by God’s grace with heartfelt thanks, to reflect how far we still are from what God would have us be, and to trust only in the justice and mercy of God.


With that attitude, Jesus’ parable tells us, the tax collector went home justified, made right with God. With that attitude, we have begun to master the essentials of prayer, and with it, we can go on learning to become closer and closer to God.


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Persisting in Prayer

(Proper 23. Year C. 2 Tim. 3.14 – 4.5; Luke 18, 1-8)


Noel Coward wrote in one of his plays: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”. I think many of us know the truth of that. A line from a popular song can take us back instantly to our childhood or adolescence, or remind us of a particular event. But it works the other way too; something we see or read brings a song into our mind, and we struggle to get rid of it. It becomes an earworm.

I’ve had a particular song on the brain this week, as I’ve been preparing to preach on the parable of The Judge and the Widow. It’s not a proper pop song, but a take off by the Two Ronnies of a Status Quo hit ‘I’m a Wanderer’. They turned it into a song about a nagging wife, with lines like “She nags at me in public so I feel a proper berk. She likes to nag me lunchtimes, so she rings me up at work” and the chorus goes “I’m fond of her, so very fond of her, but she goes on and on, and on, and on, and on and on and on”. You can see why a story about a woman who nagged at a judge until he gave her justice brought that song back into my mind!

This parable has parallels with a passage in the Book of Ben Sirach in the Apocrypha, or Ecclesiasticus as it is often known.(35, 15-19).There the writer speaks of a widow who cries for justice, and affirms that the prayers of the righteous will be heard by God, and the prayer of the humble will be answered. Ben Sirach also promises that God will come without delay and describes the punishment the Almighty will inflict on the unmerciful and the Gentiles. But although Jesus may have had this passage in mind when he told this parable, his version concentrates on the petitioner, and lacks any description of vengeance or punishment for the unrighteous.

This is another of the parables with very strange central characters. There is the judge who has the reputation (and admits it himself) of having no fear of God or respect for people. He had no fear of God, although judges were supposed to be administering justice on behalf of God, because he did not keep the tradition which said in Israel a judge should always hear the cases of orphans first and widows next, because they had no family to plead their case for them. He had no respect for people (the adjective used says he felt no shame before people) because like so many judges at the time, he was corrupt.

A contemporary of Jesus wrote that the judges in Jerusalem were known as Dayyaney Gezeloth, which means robber judges, instead of Dayyaney Gezeroth, the proper name, which means judges of prohibition. This judge could be bribed, and gave justice to the person who paid him most, rather than administering the law fairly.

On the other hand, there is a widow, who nags at the judge until she gets the judgement she wants. She would not have been a respected figure in Bible times, since she did not behave as a woman was supposed to. In the first place, women did not go to courts or take any part in public life. Ordinarily, there would have been a male relative to plead her case for her, a son or brother or cousin, but obviously in this case she was totally alone. But even so, she should have found someone to act for her, or quietly accepted her fate.

A woman who spoke loudly, and especially one who nagged, was often criticised in the Scriptures. Proverbs 21.9 says “It is better to live on the roof top than share a house with a nagging wife” and 27.15 “a nagging woman is as annoying as the constant dripping on a wet day”. But this widow was destitute and alone: not only did she have no-one to plead her cause, she obviously had no money with which to bribe the judge. It is likely that the case concerned money or inheritance, since that was the only sort of case which one judge could hear alone. This widow had nothing but her voice to make her case known and get justice for herself. Like the judge, she had no shame, and was prepared to suffer social disapproval to achieve her ends.

And, eventually, her nagging wore the judge down. He did not fear violence from her, but her persistence convinced him that she would never give up – so in order to get himself some peace and go back to his comfortable life, he gives her justice. Although at the beginning of the parable the widow’s situation seemed hopeless, because she never gave up she got what she wanted.

The introduction to the parable tells us that is about persistence in prayer. The message is, if this poor and powerless woman’s needs are met because of her persistence, so also will the appeals of the faithful believers, if they continue to pray to God.

But the parable is still puzzling. Are we meant to conclude that God is an unjust judge, who will only hear our prayers if we bribe him or nag him continually about what we want him to do for us? That is clearly not the picture Jesus gave us of God, our heavenly Father.

Sometimes in parables there is a direct parallel between the earthly and the heavenly. These are often introduced with the formula “The kingdom of Heaven is like”. But other parables draw a contrast between the two, as in this case. If even an unjust judge will eventually give a persistent petitioner what she needs, the parable says, how can we doubt that God, who is a loving and merciful judge, will act in the best interests of those who believe in him, if they continue to have faith and pray. The last two verses of the passage expand on this. ‘Will God not grant justice to his chosen ones?” “Of course he will” the faithful need to answer. “Will God delay in coming to help”. “No, he won’t” is the answer of faith.

But then comes the usual sting in the tail. The parable is meant to bring comfort and encouragement to those who have faith in God – but it also challenges them: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

So we come back again to the question of faith, as we do so often in the Jerusalem document, the teaching which Luke places during the final journey of the disciples with Jesus to the Holy City where he will suffer and die. And now it is coupled with a question about prayer.

Many of us have problems with prayer. For some it is a struggle with no obvious beneficial outcome, so in the end we give up. Prayer, and particularly intercessory prayer, is an enormous topic, and it would be impossible to cover it adequately in this address. But, in the light of the parable, perhaps I can share some thoughts about what intercessory prayer is, and is not.

It is not a shopping list of demands that we present to God. So often, we never get beyond the concept of prayer that sees it as a heavenly version of a child’s letter to Father Christmas, or an Amazon wish-list. Persistent prayer is not nagging at a reluctant relative till they eventually give in. It is sharing our needs with a loving parent, who knows already what they are, and is more than ready to help us.

It is not an emergency phone call. Many people only turn to prayer when they have exhausted everything else. Persistent prayer is something that we practise all the time, not something we save for when we are in dire straits.

It is not a one-way conversation. In the Old Testament, Jacob is pictured as struggling with God, because the reality of prayer is that there are two wills involved – God’s will and ours. But often prayer only seems to involve us trying to influence God’s will. We pray as if God is like the unjust judge, and we need to offer bribes (“if you will only let me pass this exam. I’ll go to church every Sunday”) or make as much noise as we can (“if only we can get everyone in your church/town/country joining us in this day of prayer, God will hear us”) for our prayer to succeed.

Prayer is a two way conversation. We share with God our needs and anxieties and those of others; and we listen to God speaking to us about the divine perspective on these concerns, and what God expects us to do to help resolve them.

We will hear God speaking to us through Scripture, through the words of other people of faith – and through the silence when when we allow ourselves to encounter the Divine in the deepest parts of our being. And all of those channels through which God speaks to us may involve us in intellectual and emotional struggles, and we will need to persist in praying, even when it seems barren and pointless, if we are ultimately to hear God speaking to us through them.

Prayer is not ultimately about us and what we want. It is about hearing God, and what God wants, and aligning our will to that. It is about training ourselves to trust God, and the ultimate triumph of the divine purpose for the world, even when there seems to be little hope of it ever being realised. That is what Jesus did, and why he is able to be ‘God for us’.

We need to persist in prayer, in imitation of Christ, until what we want is at one with what God wants for us and for the world, so that we may be ready to recognise and welcome the Kingdom of Heaven when it comes.


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Prayers. 18 September ’16. Mission Week.





Living God, may we reflect your love as we prepare to grow”  in our care for our world and its people.


We pray for those in positions of power and leadership, especially in this country, that they may reflect your unconditional love shown in Jesus of Nazareth as they make decisions about energy production, about military action, about financing health and social care, about caring for refugees, especially children, and about our relationship with our close neighbours and allies.


We pray for ourselves as we care for our environment, as we do what we can to reduce pollution and global warming, as we cast our votes and influence  opinion, and as we care for those in need in this country and throughout the world.

May we grow in wild hope.


Father, live among us  Keep us in your love

Living God, may we reflect your love as we prepare to grow” in our knowledge of Jesus, his words and his example to us.


We thank you for those who brought the knowledge of Christ to this country, and those who went from here to take that knowledge to other parts of the world, and for all the societies like USPG who share that knowledge now between different cultures and peoples.


We pray for those who translate the scriptures, those who teach, those who reflect on the application of the Bible and the Tradition in the modern world; and those who communicate with the many who respect Christ, but dislike Christians and the Church. We pray for all those who use the media and especially social media to communicate their faith, that they may respect the findings of the physical and social sciences, and the research of linguists and historians, and may always reflect your infinite, unconditional love.


May we grow in passionate faith.


Father, live among us  Keep us in your love

Living God, may we reflect your love as we prepare to grow” in our care for one another


We thank you for all those in our church and our wider community who give time, and talents and money to care for those in any kind of need.


We pray especially for those who care for others with little reward or public recognition. We pray for those who care for people in need who are not popular with the community, and for those who run personal risks to do so.


We pray for ourselves, that we may reflect your unlimited, unconditional love as we care for each other; and we pray for those in need who have asked for our prayers.

We pray for your comfort to be felt by those who mourn, especially the relatives of those who have recently died,  and of those whose anniversaries fall at this time.

May we grow in outrageous generosity.


Father, live among us  Keep us in your love


Living God, may we reflect your love as we prepare to grow in this coming week


We pray for everyone involved in the Grow Mission activities this week. Resource and bless us, we pray.

We pray especially for the activities that reach out to the elderly and marginalised in our communities.


May this week be a time of refreshment, renewal and joy .


Father, live among us  Keep us in your love


We offer these prayers in the name of our friend and brother, Jesus Christ.


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(1 Tim. 1, 12-17; Luke 15, 1-10)


My family will tell you that I’m addicted to Facebook!


One of the pages that I check up on almost every day is the page covering the district where we live.  It’s a great source of local news, recommendations and information.


People frequently make use of the page to ask for help with things that have been lost: bikes, mobile phones, cats and dogs – and this last week, a ferret, and, sadly, two women who have gone missing from home.


There was no social media to locate things that had got lost in the time of Jesus. If you wanted to find them you had to set to, exert a lot of effort in the search, and even take some risks. Hence the joy when what was lost was eventually found.


In chapter 15, Luke records three parables from Jesus about things that were lost and found. The best known one is the parable of the Prodigal Son, which should more accurately be called the parable of the Two Sons. That is different in many ways from the two we heard this morning; not least because the son in that story got himself lost, and was able to make some effort to help in his return. In the case of the coin and the sheep, the lost things bore no responsibility for their state: it was their owner who had lost them, and therefore it was up to their owner to find them again.


sheep-3In the case of the sheep, it was unlikely the man owned all of the 100 sheep; if he had been wealthy enough to own that many, he would have been wealthy enough to employ someone else (a hired man) to look after them. It is more likely that they belonged to an extended family, or a clan in the village, and certain of the men folk had the duty of looking after them. Since they represented the wealth of the community, it brought shame on the shepherd to have lost one of them.


As usual, Luke balances a story about a man with a story about a woman. It could be that the coins represented the woman’s dowry. She could have been wearing them around her head as a headdress, or around her neck as a necklace. Whatever they were, they IMGP0693represented her family’s wealth, and to lose one of the ten was very serious indeed. The woman would have rarely left her house so she knew where she had lost the coin. Hence the effort sweeping the dirt floor in a windowless house and the cost of lighting a lamp in daytime in order to try to retrieve it.


Luke shows Jesus telling these stories in response to criticism from the local religious leaders about the sort of people he socialises with. Not only does he accept invitations from ‘tax collectors and sinners’, )Luke’s catch-all phrase for all those who don’t measure up to the high standards of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law), Jesus even returns their hospitality, inviting such people to come and eat at his table.


Even more than now, in the time of Jesus, meals were very important; who was invited, where they sat in relation to the host, the courtesies shown to them, and even the quality of food that was served were very important indicators of your social status, relative to the host and other guests. And having been shown such hospitality, if you were not to lose face, you had to return it in equal style. So, you would normally only invite those in your social network, people like you; it would be a waste of your time to invite people who couldn’t pay back the honour, and even more, those who would diminish your social status. Jesus demonstrates the love of God when he socialises  with ‘the lost’ – those who can never pay him back, those whose company brings him no social status.

Since, in the Bible, formal meals were often used to stand for the Kingdom of Heaven, and the final heavenly banquet to which all those in God’s favour would be invited, what Jesus says and does with regard to sharing table fellowship is an important part of his teaching about who is to be regarded as the most significant members of the kingdom.


These two stories though, are not just about God’s love and concern for those who the religious leaders regarded as hopelessly lost, or about Jesus’ association with them. They are a challenge to his critics, who he is saying are responsible for losing these people from the Kingdom, and a challenge about their lack of effort to retrieve them. And that is a challenge not just to the religious leaders and committed religious believers  of Jesus’ time; it’s also a challenge to the leaders of the church in our time, and a challenge to us!

So who are the people we have lost from active participation in the Christian faith, and how do we find them?

When I have lost something, I find that a good way to start the search is to go back in my memory to the time I last had it, and to try to trace my steps from there.

There are a lot of statistics that show the decline in religious practice generally, and in the Christian Church and the Church of England in particular. Many of them compare the position now with the position in the 1960s. Weekly attendance in the Anglican Church has declined from around 5% of the population in 1960 to around 2% now. Forty years ago usual attendance on a normal Sunday was around 1.25 million people – now it is 784,000. The average urban church congregation now numbers 60; the average rural congregation just 19. The decline is getting steeper, year on year; average weekly attendance declined by 12% in the last decade. This decline is not just found in the Christian churches: Counting Religion in Britain found that only 11% of Britons now attend any sort of religious service regularly (and regularly is once a month, not weekly), 65% practically never attend any sort of service.


More detailed statistics show the decline is the greatest among the young adult age groups. On the whole, older people are more churchgoing. The decline among children and younger adults is much steeper than the decline among older people. The figures show that the main reason for the decline in affiliation and attendance is not adults leaving the church; it is that the children of churchgoing parents do not attend when they reach adulthood, and in turn their children never attend. So retaining children and youth is critical, because it is far easier to raise people as churchgoers than to turn the unchurched into churchgoers.


So trying to ensure that we do not lose our children and young people is very important; our children and youth work should be a priority. It won’t be as easy as it was in the days before TV and computers and the internet, when sometimes the main social life for children and younger people was centred around the church. Now, there are lots of competing activities, many of which are organised with a sophistication the church cannot hope to equal. But the church can offer a personal interest, a safe environment, and a care for children and young people as unique and beloved children of God, rather than just consumers, valued only for their spending power.


Mostly however, the church will have to go out and search for those we have lost since their baptism or confirmation, or since their parents were regular churchgoers. We will have contact with some of them in schools, through school visits and assemblies, which are important because they may be the only time these children and young people come into contact with a Christian speaking about their faith. We are asked to think particularly about this contact today, which is being kept across the churches as Education Sunday. Such valuable contact needs careful planning, and need to be as interesting as we can make it. I remember being warned very early on in my training to remember that no-one mc_logo_xlwas ever bored into faith! Messy Church is another way we can make contact without being boring, which is why I think it is so important!


It is even more difficult at secondary level than primary; pupils are much more likely to answer back and argue, and will base their arguments on a set of values that they see as being disregarded in the beliefs and practices of many religions. Important values to the younger generations today are respect for difference, acknowledgement of the discoveries of science, history and literary criticism with regard to sacred writings as well as secular books, and an absolute opposition to denying people their rights – so no discrimination on the basis of race, gender or sexuality is likely to be acceptable.


We will also have to go out from our church buildings to make contact with older people who have lost contact with church. Before the days of the welfare state, the church had a lot of contact with non-churchgoers through social work, providing homes for children and unmarried mothers, hospitals and education. Now that money for education and care is getting tighter, it may be that the churches will have to step up to fill in the gaps, as they are already doing in many areas, in projects like  Food Banks. Such work will not bring quick results, but will need to be sustained over many years of patient provision, living the faith, accepting people as they are, so that people see the love of God reaching out to them through what Christians do in Jesus’ name.


These parables of the lost give us a picture of God  painstakingly searching out those who have become lost to faith and membership of the church, concentrating every effort on the work, and rejoicing as each one is brought back into the fold, one by one. They challenge us all to do this work in God’s name.


How are we, each one of us, being asked to search out the lost in our communities today?


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Carry your Cross.

What-Does-It-Mean-To-Take-Up-Cross-Daily Deuteronomy 30, 15-20; Luke 14, 25-33.

In today’s readings we get two different pictures of the religious life. In Deuteronomy we get what might be called the prosperity gospel – which was a theme which ran through many of the books of the Old Testament and is still preached by some strands of the Christian church today.

This approach says if you do what God wants, keep the rules, and perform the right rituals then you will prosper, have a good life and live a long time. If you don’t, you won’t.

The trouble is, so often real life doesn’t work out like that. We all know really good people who have suffered enormously; and nasty and evil people who have prospered. And saying that the apparently good ones must have secretly sinned doesn’t wash; if, like Job, they maintain they are unjustly punished, what answer is there for them?

In the Gospels, and particularly in our reading today, we get a very different picture of the life of the faithful. Jesus doesn’t promise prosperity to those who follow him. Rather, he warns them to expect family conflict, loss of possessions and even death as his disciples. In that time, to carry your cross meant you were a dead man walking. This picture runs counter to all our normal human priorities. We try hard to ensure life, prosperity and health for ourselves first and our family next. In today’s consumer society, it would be a very incompetent advertiser who tried to sell a product on the basis that its USP (unique selling point) was poverty, suffering and death.

Luke places this warning at the point where Jesus is beginning his journey to Jerusalem, a journey that will end in his arrest, trial and death. He is being followed by enthusiastic crowds who have heard his teaching and seen his miracles, and probably believe he is about to bring in the good times for them. What he said is shocking enough to us – even in this individualistic time, we don’t expect to be told to hate our families by a religious leader. It would have been even more shocking in a time when individuals had no significance apart from family and community. What this passage describes, however, is the experience of Jesus, and his disciples, and the early Christians – that following Christ can be an immensely costly undertaking, and that we ought not to commit ourselves to it without proper thought about that cost.

Nowadays, we do tend to think a bit more seriously than people once did about becoming a Christian. It is not the social norm that it once was in this country. But we don’t really expect church membership to be very costly. We don’t expect to have to carry a cross. But when we do have a cross to bear, sometimes it makes us give up our faith altogether – because deep down we secretly hold to the Deuteronomic teaching that faithfulness to God will bring us worldly success and prosperity.

It’s not so everywhere. A Gallup Poll found that the poorest countries tend to be the ones where religion is felt to be most important in people’s lives. In countries like Bangladesh, Niger, Yemen and Indonesia 99% of people thought religion was important in their lives; in Estonia, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Hong Kong and the UK less than 27% did so. Yet these are countries with high numbers of people suffering from stress related illness – countries with crosses of a different kind from the very poor ones.

As human beings, we cannot escape the cross. Everyone suffers in some way at some time in their lives. There are many different sorts of suffering. There is the suffering we see in the media every day of the week: suffering caused by natural disasters, as a consequence of war and civil strife; suffering from poor sanitation and lack of medical facilities. There is suffering from persecution for your faith, or your race, or your gender or your sexuality, made even worse when the persecution comes from your neighbours and even those who share your faith. There is suffering from sickness, whether physical or mental, both our own and the illness of those close to us. There is emotional suffering, when relationships break down, or when we are unjustly accused, or our sense of self-worth is damaged by unemployment. There is suffering from depression and the loss of a sense of the presence of God.

So, no-one has a monopoly of suffering; nor can we say that one person’s suffering is worse than another’s. We cannot know how heavy a cross feels on another person’s shoulders, and all suffering has the potential to darken and destroy. So, how can we ‘carry’ the cross and follow Jesus? How can we bear our suffering in the way that he did, so that we can find life and meaning in it, rather than it overwhelming us with bitterness and despair?

Let me share with you some insights from a marvellous book, called ‘Finding Meaning and Hope in Suffering’. ( SPCK 2010.) It is by Trystan Owain Hughes, the Anglican chaplain of 41tvNO2qm7LCardiff University. At the age of 37, he was diagnosed with a degenerative spinal condition which means he cannot stand or sit for long without pain. But instead of this increasing his unhappiness, he drew on insights from his reading, his faith and and his pastoral work to seek out sources of hope and meaning in his ‘cross’.

It’s impossible to summarise the whole book in a short sermon, but I hope that I may inspire you to read it for yourselves to help you to carry your crosses, whatever they may be. Though we cannot escape suffering, we are not entirely without control. We can decide how to cope with it, and what we decide to do can contribute to our suffering, or allow us to overcome it. Changing our way of thinking about suffering is not an easy journey, but doing so can help us to feel better. Hughes quotes often from Victor Frankl a Jewish psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz. Frankl said that those who survived the concentration camps were not necessarily those who had robust constitutions, but those who developed a sense of spirituality, a life of inner riches and freedom.

Hughes uses the metaphor of building a tower (from the parable in today’s Gospel reading) to set out a plan of how to carry our cross. The foundations of the tower are Awareness and Acceptance.

Awareness means living in the present – not worrying about the future or constantly going back over the past. It means searching out the moments of beauty and love in whatever situation we are in, what is called ‘practising the sacrament of the present moment’; not rushing through life, but standing sometimes, as a child does, in wonder at the intricacy of life. It means looking for God’s presence even in situations where God seems absent.

Acceptance involves admitting the reality of the present situation and relinquishing the struggle for control. It involves saying “I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be”. This is not the same as minimising suffering or passivity or fatalism, but involves embracing a of life that is bigger than the suffering. It often involves waiting patiently, not trying to explain suffering, but believing there is growth even in darkness. It means trusting that God has a plan even if we cannot yet see it; believing, as Julian of Norwich wrote, that ultimately “All things shall be well”.


We Christians can do this because our faith tells us that God is not absent in our suffering. The one who Moltmann called ‘The Crucified God’ came through suffering, including the sense of the absence of God, to resurrection. We need to practise awareness and acceptance daily to help us 51V5WvZisOL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_to step back from our suffering and begin to build our tower of hope and joy.

Hughes suggests five building blocks for our tower. The first is the beauty of nature – the appreciation of the wonder of our world, which we tend to lose as we leave childhood.

The second block is laughter. Only humans in the animal kingdom laugh and cry, and it seems a faculty without any evolutionary purpose: but laughter is a way of rising above suffering and tragedy to a spiritual realm. G K Chesterton said “The reason why angels can fly is they take themselves lightly!”

The third block is memory. Although unhappy memories can keep people in bondage to the past, happy personal memories can help us to find hope and purpose and see meaning in the present and God with us. So can Bible passages, poems and sounds and pictures. So we need to store away a memory bank of grace that nothing can take from us, to draw on in times of suffering.

The fourth block is art in all its variety – music, painting, sculpture, poetry, drama and film. Somehow art helps us to feel things more deeply and to bring order into the chaos of suffering.

The final block is other people. Suffering can push us into isolation and self-obsession. But it can also help us to empathise with others, and to reach out to help. If we chose that way, then we can grow through our suffering, and, in a way, take revenge on it and deny its power. Many of us will have met people who, in spite of the most intense suffering, exude joy and hope. They are living symbols of the truth that ‘the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it’. (John 1.3)

The Gospel reading calls on us today to carry our cross and follow Christ.

So consider.

What is your cross?

Have you prepared yourself to bear its weight?

How will you carry it, to bring you fulness of life and to give glory to God?

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God of Law or God of Grace?


Hebrews 12. 18-29; Luke 13, 10-17.

I wonder how you picture God?

At home I have a collection of images of the divine from some of the Eastern religions, known to my children as “Mum’s heathen gods”.

IMG_0924There are Hindu gods, with their many arms to show their powers and characters, some of them, like Ganesha and Hanuman, with animal heads. Then there are the different images of Buddhas, some fat and jolly, some serene and detached from the world.


I’ve got fewer images from the Christian tradition, but I do have icons and photos on my wall which portray Jesus, Mary and the Trinity in different ways. One of the things I have asked people to do during Confirmation preparation is to draw their idea of God, and that brings interesting responses. You tend to get lots of elderly men with beards, sandals and long white robes; but one 14 year old girl drew a picture of the world cradled in loving hands – which I thought showed some spiritual maturity.

In Judaism and Islam, you have a prohibition on making images or drawing pictures of God, and some strands of Christianity have also observed this at different times. So in these religions you tend to get pictures of God drawn with words. Christianity in particular has gone in for defining God by creeds and statements. But another way of giving a picture of God is through stories. It’s a way Jesus used, through his parables, and it’s also one way used by the Gospel writers, as they tell us about how Jesus acted.

In our Gospel reading today, Luke gives us two opposing pictures of God. On the one hand, Jesus shows a God who relates to humanity through grace, compassion and inclusion. He sees the woman’s need and responds to it, even though she hasn’t asked for help. He calls her from the edge of the synagogue (which symbolises her exclusion from active society as a result of her ailment) and places her in the centre. He lays hands on her – breaking all the taboos in the Old Testament Holiness Code on interaction between male and female – and tells her to stand up straight and hold her head high. He makes her well, restoring not just her health but her place in society. He calls her a ‘daughter of Abraham’ emphasising her dignity, and her equality with the men around her.

On the other hand, the leader of the synagogue demonstrates his belief in a God who relates to humanity through law, fear and exclusion. His only concern was with the rules, especially the complicated oral law which specified what a faithful Jew could or could not do on the Sabbath. To break that law risked angering God. His spiritual blindness meant that he could not rejoice in the good done by Jesus, simply because he judged it was done at the wrong time. He was so keen to obey the letter of the law, that he failed to observe its spirit.

According to Deuteronomy, the purpose of the Sabbath law was to celebrate release from oppression and slavery, yet this man could not rejoice in the release of the woman from oppression by the evil of sickness. His misjudgement about the purpose of the Sabbath was compounded by his own hypocrisy: he would work if it was necessary to feed or rescue one of his animals, but he could not accept healing done on this day.

Pointers to both the God of law and the God of grace can be found in the Jewish tradition. Particularly after the exile in Babylon, strict adherence to the Law and separation and exclusion were seen as the way of preserving Jewish identity and loyalty to God. But there was also another strand, which portrayed God as the God of all nations, who wanted social justice and inclusion.

For Christians, Jesus is the icon of God, the one who shows us what God is like. In the New Testament, too, there are passages like our reading from Hebrews, which portray a terrifying God, who threatens humans who transgress his laws, and whose wrath needs to be satisfied by a perfect sacrifice: passages which inform the theology behind verse 2 of our offertory hymn, a theology in which I don’t believe. But Luke’s stories tell us about a God who wants to heal people and include the outcast, the God of grace, the God that Jesus reveals to us; and that the proper response to that revelation is to praise God and rejoice (as the people in the synagogue did) not carp and condemn (as the leader of the synagogue did).

But this insight is one the Christian community has had to learn again and again, especially as the Church turned from a movement into an institution. Institutions tend to be much more comfortable serving a God of law, with clear rules defining what and who is acceptable, and what is not. Some rules are necessary for community life; but the tendency is to go beyond what is necessary and try to keep the community pure and obedient by fear of breaking ever more complicated rules, a process which tends to exclude people, rather than include them, and oppress them rather than liberate. Though St Paul argued that we are justified by our faith, not by our works, by the grace of God, not by keeping the Law; and the writer of the letter to the Colossians argued against teachings that said the observance of the Sabbath, festivals and food laws were as important as loving all members of the community, the restrictive rules crept back into the life of the Christian community. To counter what it regarded as heresy, the church drew up creeds, and demanded adherence to them as a condition of membership, persecuting those who could not accept these word pictures of God. Even the multitude of laws about what could be done on the Sabbath (now Sunday rather than Saturday) came back, so that it became a time of oppression not liberation. The Puritans forbade music, dance, sport, anything that might make the Sabbath a day of joy. The gloomy Victorian Sunday was maintained with the same hypocrisy seen in our Gospel reading, resulting in situation where rich people could avoid work on the Sabbath day, but the poor could not.


One result of this trend is that, while Jesus is seen as an attractive figure by many, a true icon of the God of grace and compassion, Christianity itself is rejected as reflecting only a God who excludes and punishes. Gandhi said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ!”mahatma_gandhi_religion_5335

Many people, including those from inside different Christian denominations, have admitted to sharing this anxiety that the institutional church doesn’t reflect the God of Grace that Jesus came to show us. That has serious implications for our mission, and our attempts to commend our faith to an increasingly indifferent and unbelieving society, because our practice will inevitably reflect our picture of the God we serve.

So the Gospel today face us with a challenge, not just about how we mark the Sabbath, but also how we picture God and how that picture influences the way we serve God in the Church and the world.

What sort of God do we worship and praise today?

What sort of God did Jesus show us?

A God of rules or a God of love?

One who keeps some of his sons and daughters bent over and burdened, or one who wants them all to stand up straight and hold their heads high?

A God of law or a God of grace?

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Are you a Hope Addict?

Are you a hope addict?

(Genesis 15, 1-6; Hebrews 11, 1-3 & 8-16; Luke 12, 32-40)


I saw a picture of a piece of graffiti during the week. It asked the question: “Are you a hope addict?”


According to our readings today, the answer for every Christian disciple should be “Yes!” Christians are meant to be people of faith, and according to the writer to the Hebrews: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”.


But what does this mean? Is faith, as so many non-religious people think, simply “Believing six impossible things before breakfast,” a skill which the White Queen advises Alice to practise in ‘Through the Looking Glass’? Or is it actually a quite different way of living in the world, based on what we believe and hope is the ultimate reality behind it?


Genesis and Hebrews give us a picture of Abraham as a person of faith, and an example of of how to live in faith. The earlier chapters of Genesis tell how Abraham received a call from God to leave his home city, his relatives and his familiar way of life in his old age, and to travel with his wife, Sarah, to an unknown land, to set up home among foreigners and strangers. He has to be prepared to start again. If he does this, he is promised blessings from God: a personal blessing in that he will have a legitimate child of his own as his heir, and that he will become famous, wealthy and the founder of a new nation; but also that, through him, blessings will come for the benefit of the whole world.


Though the promise of a child in their old age seems to be nonsensical, Abraham and Sarah commit themselves to following God’s directions for their lives in faith in its fulfilment. They don’t themselves see the total fulfilment of the promise beyond the birth of Isaac, and neither do many of their descendants. They are commended because they live as if the hope is reality, even when it seems very doubtful that it will be fulfilled, and so play their part in bringing God’s purposes to fruition.


The New Testament indicates that we Christian believers are meant to regard ourselves as children of Abraham and Sarah: not in a religious or racial way, but in the way we commit ourselves to doing God’s will and bringing in God’s Kingdom. Hebrews refers to them as ‘our ancestors’ and urges us to follow them in seeking a heavenly country and city in which to make our home.


Luke also speaks of  a way of life that is based on values different from the usual secular ones. Since the disciples expected an imminent return of Christ in glory, they were to sit light to earthly possessions, and reject earthly attitudes of competitiveness, acquisitiveness and possessiveness. They were to share what they had with the poor, and build up the treasure of the Kingdom of Heaven, rather than their personal fortunes. They were to be constantly ready for the coming of Christ, which could happen at any time.


Like Abraham and Sarah, they were commanded not to be afraid of the future. Living life in faith meant living it in the confidence that God was in control, and that God’s plans would ultimately triumph. Jesus assures the disciples that, though they will have to work to make the Kingdom of God a reality, God wants them to experience it, and wants to give it to them. Christian faith and hope means believing that all of life in this world, as well as in the next,  is ultimately in the control of  One who is like a loving parent, rather than governed by the forces of evil.


What then are these passages saying to us about the way we live our Christian lives today?

Are we meant to ignore what we know about human biology, and believe that a woman past the menopause can bear a child? Is every Christian meant to throw up their job, sell their house and wander off to colonise some foreign land in the name of God? Are we all meant to give away everything we earn or inherit, and live off other people until such time as Jesus descends from the heavens, and a completely new sort of world order is inaugurated?


Personally, I don’t think so. I think we are meant to use the intelligence God has given us, and the research done by scholars into the Scriptures, to interpret the meaning of these passages. That means first of all, recognising the sort of writing they are, and reading them in the context of that, rather than taking everything literally.


So, Genesis comes from the genres of literature known as myth and legend, the sort of literature that portrays a world where human interact with other sorts of beings like giants and demons, where animals can talk, and where people live to a great age. The religious truth of this literature doesn’t depend on those things actually happening. So, in this passage,  I wouldn’t take literally the ages given for Abraham and Sarah when they left Ur or when they had Isaac; what I think we should take from the story is their example of living in hope and complete trust in God’s promises, and continuing the have faith even when things didn’t seem to be turning out the way they were promised.


Hebrews was written to a people with a similar world view, so it does take such details literally; but we don’t have to. We know very little about the background of this piece of writing; we don’t know who wrote it, or when, or what the circumstances were that prompted its composition. We don’t even know if it was a genuine letter, or a collection of sermons or a pastoral treatise.


There are even problems about what exactly it says in some places, and specially in the way it defines ‘faith’. The Greek original uses technical philosophical terms, ‘hypostasis’ and ‘elegchos’, for the words which are translated as ‘assurance’ and ‘conviction’ in verse 1.  It may actually be asserting that faith is the reality of things not seen; that is, believing has itself a kind of power to make things happen, because what we believe affects the way we live, and so the reality in which we live. It may also be asserting that faith is the proof, rather than the conviction about what we can’t see; that is that living as if God’s Kingdom exists on earth is actually the proof that it does. Abraham lived in this way, the passage says, and so should we. This is why God affirmed  of Abraham, and if we live in the same hope and trust, God will affirm us.


In Luke, Jesus uses a mixture of Semitic exaggeration and parable to teach his disciples about the proper way to live as a citizen of the better country to which Abraham was journeying. It is not just a matter of what we do in our spiritual and religious lives; God is as much, if not more concerned with what we do in our working, social, economic and political lives.

If we think God’s rules should control the world, then God has a say in how we use our money as well as how we conduct our relationships. If we think God’s blessing means justice, freedom, health and prosperity for everyone, then when we make political and economic decisions, we need to side with the poor, the sick and the outcast, rather than with the powerful and rich.


If we believe that the peacemakers and the humble are the truly blessed, it affects how we deal with situations of war, and with conflict in our personal lives. If we believe that Christ’s coming is not something that may happen at some distant time in the future, but happens every time we are asked to help the homeless, the hungry, the sick and those in prison, it makes an enormous difference in how we live out our faith in practical ways, and what we think is really important in our religious lives. If we believe that love and sacrifice are the values that truly reflect the ultimate reality that is God, then those are the values that will guide the way we live now, in spite of the frequent evidence that seems to deny this.


Our faith gives us the guide to how we live our lives in our earthly kingdoms, in anticipation of the future triumph of the heavenly kingdom. That is the way of life that Jesus calls us to. That is the way of life which will answer the prayer of many that God’s kingdom should come. That is what is means to live in the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.


That is what it means to be a hope addict!

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