Sermon preached on 16th October 2016 by the Very Revd. David Ison, Dean.

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Sermon preached on 16th October 2016 by the Very Revd. David Ison, Dean.

‘To clasp our hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world’.

In 1971 Chay Blyth was the first person to sail alone from east to west around the world. When he encountered enormous waves in the southern oceans, he said, it got so bad that I even prayed. For some of us, God is the last resort when everything else has failed. For some of us, prayer is a kind of cosmic slot machine where you put your prayer and good works into the slot and hope that God will produce something really nice in response.

In this cathedral as in many others, people write down their prayer requests and we read them and offer them to God. The requests vary hugely, but many are concerned with getting the person who is praying the opportunity to live a good life and to share that with those around them. Relatively few of the prayers are about the wider world. We begin as children do, concerned with what’s around us, our family and circumstance: it takes us a while to look beyond ourselves and realise that our lives are also bound up with those of everyone else on this planet, and beyond that with the life of God.

In the 2003 comedy film Bruce Almighty, Jim Carrey complains about God making his life difficult, so God goes on holiday and puts him in charge of the world.

Bruce decides to impress his girlfriend by moving the moon closer to the earth so it feels so much more romantic: and while they have a cosy dinner on the balcony, the TV screen in the background is showing the floods, disasters and deaths due to the disruption of the tides that’s been the unintended consequence of his action. Do we know what we’re doing when we ask God for something? What might happen which we or others didn’t want? It can be a dangerous thing, prayer. Be careful what you ask for, and remember that prayer for ourselves can be a beginning, but it’s certainly not the end of prayer.

Karl Barth, great Swiss Protestant theologian of the 20th century, who lived through two world wars, is attributed with saying: ‘to clasp our hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world’.

When we look around us, we can feel a bit like Chay Blyth did, faced with the enormous waves around us: waves of migration, war and upheaval, economic and social change, and also the sense of our own vulnerability as individuals and families in a globalised world where one event thousands of miles away can affect our whole future, whether that’s the decision of a multinational company to cease production or move its offices from where we are, or a recklessly criminal act of terror which changes for ever how we act and how we look at the world.

What if we respond to such overwhelming things, not with anxiety or impotence, but with prayer? ‘To clasp our hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world’.

In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples a story about a widow and an unjust judge, to encourage us to keep praying and not lose heart. On one level, Jesus is addressing the universal human experience, that, as seeing one swallow doesn’t make it summer, so saying one prayer seems to make no difference to our situation.

Jesus’s obvious answer is to point to the need for persistence. When a child asks a parent for a new toy, the parent often tests out the child to see whether they really want it and are prepared to sacrifice and work for it, or whether it’s a passing fancy which is of no real importance for the rest of their life. Do we know we really care about what we pray for?

Jesus’ story is about the persistence of the widow, rather than the motives of the unjust judge. And as Jesus says, how different is God from an unjust judge, the God who longs for us to have good things, who calls us to grow into a depth of relationship with him, the God who isn’t a cosmic sugar daddy but a loving heavenly Father.

This story isn’t simply encouraging us to pester God until we get what we want, but, as all true prayer does, to enable us to be changed by the prayers that we make.

In the Lord’s Prayer we pray, ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’ – meaning we should ask God for what will help earth, help us, and help others become more holy. It doesn’t mean asking God to get us a job, a parking space, or even to be cured of a disease.

To move from self-centred concern with our own well-being to genuine love and care about the well-being of everyone else is a long journey, the journey into which God calls us, and many get stuck at some point along the way.

Which is why Jesus’ story of the widow and the judge works on a deeper level too. It’s not actually a story about somebody making their life better and getting what they want. The widow in the story is crying out for justice. On an individual level, we’re ambivalent about justice: we’re vocal against injustice committed against ourselves, but we all secretly long that we might receive more than we deserve, that the scales of the world will be tilted in our direction, that we’ll win the cosmic lottery and get more than our just deserts.

In Luke’s Gospel the story comes after Jesus has been talking about the end of the world, about the injustice and suffering that surrounded him in his day, when there was also war, plague, starvation, refugees, violence, economic insecurity and enslavement.

Jesus promises that there will be an end: that God will come to bring justice, partially in this world, and completely in the world to come: there will be a reckoning, and those who suffer now and those who oppress them will in the future receive what they deserve. The widow’s cry for justice will be answered. God hears, God works to bring justice into being, and the prayers that we make for justice open the doors for God to act in the world, including opening our hearts so that God may change and work through us to bring justice and love to all.

‘To clasp our hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world’.

It’s an awesome thing to come to God in prayer, to share with God the desires of our hearts: for God will test whether we’re really serious about what we pray for, whether we’ll allow what we want to be transformed by God’s radical vision of love and justice for everyone and everything in this world. The widow in the story had to keep going, and so do we: but we walk hand-in-hand, not with a God who’s reluctant to give us anything good, but a God who teaches us through our prayers to become more like him, to pray and work for love and justice for the whole world.

In February 1945 the Nazis killed a 37 year old Jesuit priest called Alfred Delp, because he was working for a just society once the Nazis had been defeated. It was prayer that sustained him unbroken in the face of execution. He wrote: ‘great issues affecting humanity have to be decided in the wilderness, in uninterrupted isolation and unbroken silence. They hold a meaning and a blessing, these great silent empty spaces that bring a person face to face with reality.’ The reality of God. God didn’t save him from execution: but nonetheless, Fr Delp wrote, 'Someday, others shall be able to live better and happier lives because we died.'

Prayer isn’t the last resort but the first, isn’t asking for things but asking for change in ourselves and the world around us as we spend time with the God of love and justice. ‘To clasp our hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world’.