Pentecost 7 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 24th July

Hosea 1.2-10; Colossians 2.6-19; Luke 11.1-13

We are blessed to have Bishop John with us this morning, as he prepares to join bishops from across Scotland, and the wider Anglican Communion, at the Lambeth conference this coming week. Later in today’s service, we will offer him and Clare something of a send off, our prayer, as they go to Lambeth with our hopes and fears, the stories of faith from across this province to share with bishops with similar and different stories of faith and hope to tell.

When I arrived as Provost at this Cathedral nearly 5 years ago, and began to inhabit its life and story, I quickly realised that prayer was the particular gift and charism of this place. That may seem an obvious statement, and one that should hold true for every church, but it has been important to highlight and draw out the ways in which that is particularly true for the Cathedral: in the rhythm of Morning and Evening Prayer; the community that gathers around that rhythm; the open doors that draw many in, increasingly to sit, and stop, and pray; in the refuge that this place offers in the midst of a humming, hot, city; a refuge that speaks in the language of stone worn down by generations of praying feet, in the beauty of this place, in the music offered, and in words of scripture and reflection that name our longings and our fears. In all that, prayer is offered and experienced, and is the bedrock and calling of this place.

I start with that reflection because the chief reason the Bishops gather at Lambeth is to pray together. Again that may be stating the obvious, or be thought to be simply a pious platitude, but actually it lies at the heart of what God’s Church for God’s World, as the Conference title puts it, offers. Prayer is the Church’s gift to the world, the particular charism we inhabit, not simply for our own sake, but because it is something vital and life-giving. And so Bishop John you go to Lambeth, with close to a thousand other bishops, to pray together, and in that prayer to find their unity and their calling.

Our scriptures readings this morning offer some insights into what prayer might be, its gift. Our first reading, from the prophet Hosea, laments a world that seems empty of God. In the starkest terms, the prophet is instructed to even name his children in ways that witness to the god-forsakenness and despair that the prophet feels, living in a society that seems to have abandoned its relationship with God, and walks instead in the paths of violence. It’s one of the harshest laments and prophetic denunciations found in the bible, and yet that despair does not have the final word. In the final verse, suddenly the tone changes: ‘Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’

That shift is what prayer does, is its gift. We come to the place of prayer in despair at the state of the world or our own situation, in grief, or lamentation, and we find that we are given the gift of hope. There have been the perhaps usual controversies as the Bishops gather for the Lambeth Conference – a few bishops boycotting the event, concerns about what might still hold the churches of the Anglican Communion together, and different responses to the issues we all face. Prayer doesn’t make those problems disappear, or even less intractable; but it is the wellspring which reminds us that faith is not about succumbing to the despair; and however much the moment of lamentation is important, just as grief is important and inescapable; so the lament and the grief break as hope is discovered and named. That is the work of prayer. And what we hope the bishops will do as they gather together.

‘Christians are formed by the way in which they pray’, as the preface to the Church of England’s Alternative Service Book put it. We are formed by that process of taking our despair, our fear, to the wellspring of prayer, and finding there the gift of hope.

Our Gospel reading sees the disciples, after observing Jesus himself praying, asking him: ‘Lord teach us to pray.’ In the second half of his answer Jesus offers a series of illustrations around the themes of asking and finding. It’s easy to hear those vignettes as statements about the power and efficacy of prayer – ‘ask and it will be given to you’ – and that might leave us wondering why it is not that straightforward, or how in our heart-breaking world, prayer can be characterised so simply. I think that is to misunderstand the question Jesus is responding to. The series of illustrations he offers is about the elemental need for us to keep searching, keep desire alive, keep hoping, in the midst of many reasons to despair. The question the disciples ask is, teach us to pray, not, why do we pray? If you pray, says Jesus, you need to persist; you need the discipline of keeping on.

And in the first half of his answer, Jesus offers a simple direct way to pray; a form of words that gets to the heart of the matter:

Father, hallowed be your name: prayer begins in and with God. From that all else flows. Prayer is the placing of God at the heart of all things; displacing our own fears and anxieties, our despair or our self-centeredness, our concern for simply me and mine; all that we are is brought into relationship with God, the ground and source of being of all things; and God is holy, mystery, beyond understanding, and yet closer than breathing. And that displacement, that bringing of our fears and hopes, our faith and doubts into relationship with God, is done so that …

Your kingdom come: here is the wellspring for that hope that is the gift of prayer, hope that the world might be something other than that which we see all around us. And in order for us to see something of that kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven, we need to learn certain disciplines.

Give us each day our daily bread: give us what we truly need, and not simply what we have been taught to want, and the knowledge that that is enough.

Forgive us our sins as we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us: give us grace to live that new community of forgiveness. God’s forgiveness of us intimately bound up to our forgiveness of others.

Do not bring us to the time of trial: Jesus’ form of prayer given to his disciples ends with a simple prayer of human need and an admission of our vulnerability. Pray that you to not have to endure a time of trial, of testing. We live in a world where we know how easily we fail to exhibit the courage, the strength, the wisdom, to practise the way of God’s kingdom. But give us the strength to persist.

And so my prayer, from this place of prayer, to you, Bishop John, and your sister and brother bishops, is that you find ways to witness to that gift of prayer. That you show us how to be honest in our despair and lamentation about the challenges that face us – the huge disparities in wealth and opportunity that disfigure our world, the ever-increasing and present threat of climate change, the violence that continues to blight the lives of whole nations; but also, in praying together, show us how to find the resources for hope; find the words and deeds and disciplines of life that will nourish us into God’s future. For like the disciples before us, we need to learn how to pray. Amen.