It feels very good to be with you today. It is always like coming home when I enter this church that is so dear to me, and it is lovely to see so many familiar faces and to know that even at a distance we have stayed somehow together through our prayers.
Today’s Gospel passage comes at the end of what is called ‘the farewell discourse’ of Jesus, at the Last Supper. As the disciples were in that ‘in between’ time, between Easter and Pentecost, as they were excited by the resurrection of Jesus becoming ever more evident, but at the same time fearful of their coming out as Christians, as followers of this new way of the risen Christ, they may have been encouraged as they remembered these words: “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. Take courage; I have conquered the world!” These words may be encouraging for us as well, as we are reading them in that same period of the liturgical year.
This Sunday, shortly before Ascension Day, is called Sunday Rogate. This comes from the Latin verb rogare, ‘to ask’. From very early on in the church, these days before Ascension have been associated with praying, particularly for a good harvest. It is therefore that we have read the passage from Joel, with the promise of an abundant harvest, a gift from God who has the generosity to ‘let you eat in plenty’. This theme of the abundance that comes with a faithful life, a life based on trust in a loving God, a life full of love for his son Jesus Christ, is echoed in the Gospel. ‘Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.’
We will all have our experiences with prayer. Both, with prayers that are answered, sometimes in miraculous and unexpected ways, and also with prayers that have not been answered or when we only see much later that God had still been working out his ways, but differently from what we had asked for. We have to leave it to the Lord; ‘His will be done’. So we are invited to do something that is very different from so many other things we do. Something that remains uncertain in terms of immediate measurable outcome. But Jesus gives us a reassurance. If we pray in his mighty name, there will always be an effect; no prayer is wasted.
One of the clear effects is that the act of praying changes us. Our prayers direct our hearts and minds towards our heavenly Father and they strengthen our love and compassion for our neighbours. And this will also have an impact on the lives of all those for whom we pray, even if that may be sometimes less clear. The world as a whole is changed by all the prayers of the faithful; the Kingdom of God is strengthened.
And as our relationship with God becomes stronger and deeper through praying, we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit to help and guide us, to pray in a good way. The Spirit will interpret and mould our sometimes confused desires, so that they correspond more and more with the loving purposes of God. We may also have the confidence as we pray, that we do not go alone into the halls of heaven, but that we enter with the interpretive wisdom of the Spirit and with the covering authority of the Son, as we pray in Jesus’ name.
There are many different ways of praying. Besides our individual prayer, we may pray with our families and friends and when we come together for worship, we join in prayer with many others. We pray in our own words or using words that are given to us, like the Lords’ prayer. Within our Anglican tradition we also preserve and cherish the prayers that have been spoken for centuries by the generations before us. Some of them are translations of prayers of the early church, of the Fathers of the church, of which Father David rightly is such a big fan. After one year of theological training, I completely agree with him that we should keep reading these Fathers.
In the Book of Common Prayer we find those beautiful poetic prayers of Cranmer in Tudor English, such as: ‘O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed; Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give.’
Other set prayers are directly based on Scripture, many of them on the Psalms, such as the prayer with which I started this sermon. From the Psalms, such as Psalm 66 we sang just now, we also learn that our petitions are to be surrounded by thanksgiving, by praising the Lord, for all that we have received by his grace and mercy. Rogare means ‘to ask’, but ‘to pray’ in Latin is another word; ‘Orare’. Asking is only part of what praying is about; ‘orare’ is broader than just ‘rogare’.
From the rich monastic tradition we may at least learn two other important things about prayer. The first is that there should always be a deep connection between our prayer life and our active live, , between contemplation and action, or back to Latin, between ‘ora et labora’ (to pray and to work). We must be doers of the word, as today’s Epistle reading from the Letter of James reminds us. Our prayers, as important in themselves as they are, have to be followed up by our actions. Forgiving and serving our neighbours, doing God’s will and building his Kingdom, here and now. And we can do so in a prayerful way, we can indeed pray and work at the same time, getting closer to the ideal to ‘pray without ceasing’, as St. Paul calls it.
Which brings me to a second lesson from the monastic tradition. There are ways of praying in which little, or even no words, are used. These times of using a repetitive simple prayer or completely silent prayer can be really life giving and deepen our awareness of the Lords’ presence in our lives. Besides just talking to God, it is good to find ways to try to listen to what the Lord has to say to us, to what He wants us to see and hear. And to be aware of His loving presence. It seems as if we are rediscovering this ancient Christian prayer tradition, in this day and age. And I can only encourage you to look for the many sound Christian resources that are easily available, to develop this aspect of your prayer life.
I have always valued the fact that in this church, there are moments of silence, such as before we start the service and particularly around the Eucharist. Moments of collective contemplation such as these can be really helpful and meaningful as well.
Let me end with one of the sayings on the subject of unceasing prayer of the earliest Christian monks from the 3rd and 4thcentury AD, the so called Desert Fathers:
“Some brothers asked Father Macarius, ‘How should we pray?’ He said: ‘There is no need to talk much in prayer. Reach out your hands often, and say, ‘Lord have mercy on me; as you will and as you know.’ But if conflict troubles you, say, ‘Lord help me.’ For He knows what is best for us and has mercy.”