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Friday, 17 July 2009

Come and Rest

I don’t know about you, but, especially at this time of year, when I greet people and say “How are you?” I tend, more and more, to get the response: “I’m really tired!” or “I’m exhausted!” or something stronger. People just seem to be tired all the time, have you found that? Perhaps you feel really tired all the time? I have several friends who have, or who have had, that most distressing syndrome called myalgic encephalitis, or ME, the main symptom of which is extreme exhaustion – and I mean, totally extreme, where you can’t even chop up vegetables for supper because your arms are so weak. And others, who don’t have that condition, but who are nevertheless frequently so tired they don’t know what to do with themselves. I get like that sometimes, I know!

Modern life is incredibly stressful and tiring. People are so scared of losing their jobs that they are working as many hours as they possibly can, arriving early and leaving late, as though by working longer hours they’re actually being more productive. Of course, what really happens is that they get more and more tired, and their work becomes less and less good, so they have to spend longer and longer doing it, and get more and more tired.... and so on.

And this has led to shops being open later and later, so the people who work in them don’t get to go home, either. Of course, supermarkets employ people on shifts, and many students and, perhaps, those who look after children all day, are glad of an evening shift or two to help the budget. But again, people end up really tired, mistakes get made, and tempers get frayed.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus and his disciples were really tired, too. The disciples had just been out on a mission, and were longing to tell him all about it. Jesus himself was tired and sad because his cousin John had just been put to death by the King. So they were in dire need of a rest and a breather. And Jesus said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” Sadly, they couldn’t have as long a rest as they would have liked, because the crowds followed them and needed to be fed. And, in the bit of the story we didn’t read, Jesus feeds the five thousand, and then, absolutely desperate for a bit of time alone with his Father, to come to terms with what has been happening just lately, sends them on across the lake ahead of him, and then he comes to join them by walking across the lake.

Jesus himself would have been seriously in need of some time of quiet – if it was like Mark portrays it in his gospel, it was non-stop hustle, hustle, hustle. He was constantly on the move, healing people, performing miracles, and so on. And all his plans for a breather never seem to work out – when he went home for the weekend, the people of his home town were all, “well, who do you think you are, then?” and sneering at him, even, so Luke tells us, going so far as to throw stones at him. When he goes off with his disciples right outside Jewish territory, a woman comes to him to beg him to heal her daughter. When he goes off with them for a bit of quiet, as in this story, so that they can all rest and recharge their batteries after a busy mission, the crowds follow him, and, at the end of our reading we are told that wherever he went, sick people were brought out to touch him, and all who touched him were healed.

Whew! No wonder he badly needed time alone with his Father! And, I think, we could do a lot worse than follow his example. “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” Yes, this is going to be one of those sermons, reminding us to use what Wesley calls “The means of grace” which God has placed at our disposal. And, heaven knows, I need to hear it just as much as you do! It’s one of those guilt-producers, isn’t it – no matter how great our prayer-life may be – and, trust me, mine isn’t! – we always feel that we ought to be able to do more.

The thing is, though, that when we are very tired – and who isn’t, these days? – prayer can feel almost impossible. But Jesus shows us that it is just when we are tired that it’s most important. And the other thing is that there are plenty of resources around to help.

It is one of the things that I regret, that when I was a young Christian, that I was never really taught about different ways of prayer. They just told me I needed to pray and to read my Bible – as, indeed, I do need to – but they didn’t tell me about the different ways that this could be done. My model ended up being that of the public prayer meeting. Now, nothing wrong with that, of course – it’s an excellent way to pray, but it turned out not really to suit me. I was delighted – surprised, but delighted – when I found out that there were other ways of praying that could be used.

In fact, there are whole libraries of books out there explaining different ways of praying, from the “lectio divina” of the Benedictines, reading and meditating on a Bible passage, allowing God to speak to you through it, via the “sanctified imagination” of the Ignatians, where you imagine yourself into the scene, right up to just sitting and being in God’s presence. Not just letting your mind wander, but staying focussed, being aware of your body and your breathing, and of God’s presence. Contemplative prayer, they call it. And there are even Christians who practice what they call Christian meditation, which is basically like any other form of meditation, only using the word “Maranatha”, i.e. “Come, Lord Jesus”, to focus on, rather than a Hindu word. There is a group that meets each week at Clapham Methodist Church if you are interested in trying that out for yourself.

Or you can use a rosary – John Wesley did, so there is good precedent! While I was researching for this sermon, I discovered there is also something called Anglican prayer beads, which are four sets of seven beads, divided by four larger beads, with a cross on the end – the idea is you develop your own way of using these for prayer, perhaps praying a Bible verse on the larger beads, and then something like “Lord Jesus Christ, Lamb of God, Saviour” on the smaller ones. Or a holding cross, which is wonderful when you are ill and tired and too weak to pray – you can just literally cling to the cross of Christ! But again, you can develop your own ways of praying with it. Talking of visual aids, many people light a candle at the start of their prayer time, and I don’t know about you, but sometimes I use a candle flame to help me focus in prayer, particularly in a quiet service with lots of space for private worship in it. Music helps some people, too – hymns, or choral music, or even plainsong.

The point is, prayer is a bit like exercise – one size doesn’t fit all. You know that the best exercise for you is the one you like and will actually do, and the same applies to spiritual exercises. It’s well worth spending some time researching different ways of prayer that different groups of Christians have found helpful. There are plenty of sites out there to help. My particular favourite is a site called Pray as you Go, which provides, for each day of the week, a 15-minute podcast that you can download on to your mp3 player and listen to when convenient. It starts with some music – usually a hymn or psalm, often from another culture – and then a guided introduction to prayer. Then there is a scripture reading, and a very brief meditation on the reading, which is then repeated, and a few moments more of the day’s music before the podcast finishes with the Grace. Rather good to listen to on public transport, I find.

But there are plenty of other resources out there. I recommend a New Zealand site called Liturgy – don’t worry, I’ve got all these written down if you want a copy to have an explore for yourself – which has links to daily readings and prayers, and to other sites such as Benedictine Nuns singing the Offices of Lauds and Vespers – again, rather wonderful to listen to. There are also links to morning, afternoon and night prayer if you are the kind of person who finds a written liturgy helpful – the prayers and psalms change from day to day.

Talking of listening, if you don’t go on-line much or at all, don’t forget the weekly Choral Evensong broadcast on Wednesday afternoons on BBC3 at 4:00 pm, and repeated on Sundays, also at 4:00. We listened last week, as it was from Winchester Cathedral, and a friend of my daughter’s is one of the professional choristers there. They call them Vicars Choral, which is rather grand.

The point is, it doesn’t actually matter how you pray! Whether you use your own words, or other people’s, or none at all; whether you prefer to listen to music or to sing yourself; whether you use a rosary or prayer beads or whether those do simply nothing for you. What matters is that we spend time with our Lord, that we go by ourselves with him to a quiet place and rest awhile. It’s worth trying out a different way of praying from time to time.

After all, as we grow and change – and I hope we are all growing and changing, and allowing God to mould us into the people He created us to be – a way of prayer that was perfect for us some years ago might well not be quite such a good fit now, and something that seemed not even to be prayer back then might turn out to be the exact thing your spirit has been craving! And if it doesn’t work for you, if you find that you can’t use a given method to get and stay in touch with God, that’s fine, too. There’s plenty of other ways! What matters is that we pray, not how! And may God the Holy Spirit help us and guide our prayers.


Pray As You Go – Daily prayer for your MP3 player.

Liturgy NZ "Virtual Chapel" – Collection of resources for daily prayers, including links to sung offices. - More resources and links for daily prayer

Anglican prayer beads, with links to how to make them.

Choral Evensong on BBC Radio 3 at 4:00 pm on Wednesdays, repeated 4:00 pm on Sundays.

Holding crosses - £4.99 each from here; you can also get them from the gift shop at Westminster Cathedral, but they are £6.99 there!

Rosaries can be bought in Brixton Market, among other places.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Without Honour

I don't actually like the title for this sermon, but it was the working title and I didn't change it.

Once upon a time there was a big flood, and people had to climb up on to the roofs of their houses to escape. One guy thought this was a remarkable opportunity to demonstrate, so he thought, God’s power, so he prayed “Dear Lord, please come and save me.”

Just then, someone came past in a rowing-boat and said “Climb in, we’ll take you to safety!”

“Oh, no thank you,” said our friend, “I’ve prayed for God to save me, so I’ll just wait for Him to do so.”

And he carried on praying, “Dear Lord, please save me!”

Then along came the police in a motor-launch, and called for him to jump in, but he sent them away, too, and continued to pray “Dear Lord, please save me!”

Finally, a Coastguard helicopter came and sent down someone on a rope to him, but he still refused, claiming that he was relying on God to save him.

And half an hour later, he was swept away and drowned.

So, because he was a Christian, as you can imagine, he ended up in Heaven, and the first thing he did when he got there was go to to the Throne of Grace, and say to God, “What do you mean by letting me down like this? I prayed and prayed for you to rescue me, and you didn’t!”

“My dear child,” said God, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter – what more did you want?”

In a way, that’s rather what happened to Jesus in our Gospel reading this morning. What a difference from last week’s reading! You remember, we looked at the story of Jesus healing the little girl and the old woman. Jesus was mighty popular then, all right.

But then what happens? He goes home for the weekend. Big mistake! Because on the Sabbath Day, he goes to the synagogue with his family, and because he’s home visiting for the weekend, they ask him to choose the reading from the Prophets. Luke’s version of this story tells us that he read from the prophet Isaiah, the bit where it says: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn.”

Mark doesn’t go into such detail, but he does tell us that Jesus’ friends and family were amazed. “Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What's this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles!” And we’re told they were rather offended. “He’s only the Carpenter’s son, Mary’s lad. These are his brothers and sisters. He can’t be special.” And they were offended, so we are told. Luke says they even picked up stones to throw at him to make him go away. But Mark says that he could do no miracles there, just one or two healings.

And he was amazed at their lack of faith.

After all, they thought, what did he know? He’s just a local lad, a builder. Ought to be home working with his brothers, not gadding about the country claiming to be a prophet. They couldn’t hear God’s voice speaking through him. They didn’t expect to, and they didn’t want to. Like the man in my story, they had very definite ideas about how God worked, and working through a local boy they’d known since childhood wasn’t one of them!

You know, I really love King’s Acre. I’ve been worshipping here regularly for more than half my life – I first came over thirty years ago, a young bride of 25 years old. You people have known me for years, you’ve stood by me in my struggles with the faith, you’ve prayed for me, you’ve loved me. When I decided, tentatively, that it was just possible that God was calling me to be a preacher, you didn’t laugh at me. You encouraged me, you prayed for me, you supported me. You rejoiced with me when I was commissioned – seventeen years ago this month, it doesn’t seem possible, does it? In short, you’ve known me for the best part of my life, you’ve watched me grow up, you’ve helped me grow up, and you accept me for who I am. And my goodness, I thank God for you!

But it could have been different. You could have turned round and said, what her? Who does she think she is, thinking God has called her to preach? You could have refused to listen to me.

Now, obviously I’m not Jesus, but I hope that sometimes God does use me to bring His word to you – that part of it isn’t my problem, of course! I have no way of knowing what God wants to say to you this morning, I just preach what I think I’m given to say, and trust God for the rest. But the point is, if you refused to listen to me, simply because I’m Annabel and you’ve known me since I was little more than a girl, that would be treating me rather like the people of Nazareth treated Jesus.

Do we have definite ideas about how God works, I wonder? Do we expect to see God working in the ordinary, the every day? Or do we expect him always to come down with power and fire from Heaven? Do we expect Him to speak to us through other people, perhaps even through me, or do we expect Him to illuminate a verse of the Bible specially, or write His message in fiery letters in the sky?

We do sometimes, because we are human, long and long to see God at work in the spectacular, the kind of thing that Jesus used to do when he healed the sick and even raised the dead. And very occasionally God is gracious enough to give us such signs. But mostly, He heals through modern medicine, guiding scientists to develop medicine and surgical techniques that can do things our ancestors only dreamed about. And through complementary medical techniques which address the whole person, not just the illness. And through love and hugs and sympathy and support.

We do need to learn to recognise God at work. All too often, we walk blindly through our week, not noticing God – and yet God is there. God is there and going on micro-managing His creation, no matter how unaware of it we are. And God is there to speak to us through the words of a friend, or an acquaintance. If we need rescuing, God is a lot more likely to send a friend to do it than to come in person!

And conversely, we need to be open to God at work in us, so that we can be the friend who does the speaking, or the rescuing. Not that God can’t use people who don’t know him – of course He both can and does – but the more open we are to being His person, the more we allow Him to work in us, to help us grow into the sort of person He created us to be, then the more He can use us, with or without our knowledge, in His world. Who knows, maybe the supermarket cashier you smiled at yesterday really needed that smile to affirm her faith in people, after a bad day. Or the friend you telephoned just to have a catch-up with was badly needing to chat to someone – not necessarily a serious conversation, just a chat. You will never know – but God knows.

We are, of course, never told “what would have happened”, but I wonder what would have happened if the people of Nazareth had been open to Jesus. He could have certainly done more miracles there. Maybe he wouldn’t have had to have become an itinerant preacher, going round all the villages. Maybe he could have had a home. I think God may well have used the rejection to open up new areas of ministry for Jesus – after all, we do know that God works all things for good.

And, finally, what happened to the people of Nazareth? The answer is, nothing. Nothing happened. God could do no work there through Jesus. Okay, a few sick people were healed, but that was all. The good news of the Kingdom of God was not proclaimed. Miracles didn’t happen. Just. . . nothing.

We do know, of course, that in the end his family, at least, were able to get their heads round the idea of their lad being The One. His Mother was in the Upper Room on the Day of Pentecost. James, one of his brothers, was a leader in the early church. But were they the only ones? Did anybody else from Nazareth believe in Him, or were they all left, sadly, alone?

I think that’s an Awful Warning, isn’t it? If we decide we need to know best who God chooses to speak through, how God is to act, then God can do nothing. And God will do nothing. If he sends two boats and a helicopter and we reject them because we don’t see God’s hand at work in them, then we will be left to our own devices. As the people of Nazareth were.