Readings Genesis 18.20–32 Luke 11.1–13
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
We’ve heard plenty this week about George Alexander Louis, but what about James Alexander Gordon? The man whose voice has become as much part of the British soundscape as the Shipping Forecast and the tenor in the Go Compare advert is hanging up his microphone. Every Saturday of the football season since 1974 he has read the football results on BBC Radio, and he’s done it in a way that’s made them more than just data: he’s read them as if people were involved, people who matter. Speaking in 2007 he explained,
If Arsenal have lost, well, I’m sorry for them. If Manchester United have won [he added, incomprehensibly], I’m happy for them. So it would go something like this: Arsenal [dying fall] one, Manchester United [rising tone] two.
Had he got mischievous and reversed the inflection, then a few pools coupons would have be checked wrongly, because we hear not only what is said but how it is said.
In today’s extraordinary Genesis passage in which Abraham haggles with God over the fate of a city, we get Abraham’s tone of voice from what he says: he is scared but persistent, determined to see justice – ‘Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?’ But what about God’s tone of voice when he replies to Abraham? Is God irritated? Weary? And how should we hear Jesus’ tone of voice in the gospels? Occasionally the writers give a hint, when they say Jesus feels pity, is angry or weeps. But what is the essential tone of voice in which Jesus proclaims his message? If Jesus is the word of God made flesh (John 1.14), then this is a vital question: what kind of word is it that God speaks to us in Jesus, and in what tone of voice?
In today’s gospel – perhaps an answer. The disciples ask Jesus that question which every believer or would-be believer asks: How do we pray? How do I approach God when, like Abraham, ‘I am but dust and ashes’? Jesus answers, ‘When you pray, forget the dust and ashes and call God, “Father,”‘ in his own, Aramaic language, Abba, Dad.
God is infinite, beyond our universe, but we are not, so to picture God we need to borrow pictures from this finite world of ours and apply them (however imperfectly) to God. And this is the one Jesus recommends, not ‘General’, not ‘Judge’ (Abraham’s word), not ‘King’, but ‘Dad’. So that’s the tone of voice God has, like the voice of your dad, only more so: loving, caring, not always saying what you want to hear, but always wanting the best for you.
And you see the problem with that. This image may work for you, but you may be saying, ‘That wasn’t – that isn’t – my dad’s usual tone of voice.’ And if you are a father yourself, this is probably embarrassing, you as an image of God. ‘If I’m honest,’ you may say, ‘I’ve been rather selfish as a father,’ or, ‘I wanted what I thought was the best for my children; and I was wrong.’ Jesus acknowledges this. He knows this is not a definition of God but an image, drawn from imperfect human experience: ‘You lot are evil,’ he says, unflatteringly, to his audience, ‘but even you know how to give your kids good stuff; so how much more will God?’ Even so, though, the word ‘Dad’ may be so compromised that it just doesn’t work for you as an image of God .
Happily, there are others. Isaiah talks of God as mother, as Jesus does once of himself (Isaiah 66.13, Luke 13.34 – actually a mother hen), so perhaps that will work better for, and hint at the right tone of voice, and the feel of what it’s like to meet God. And there is another image contained in Jesus’ words today. After teaching his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, he tells them a parable about how you need to be bold when pray. It’s a story about – friends.
Early yesterday morning two of us from St Mary’s were finishing our Street Pastors shift when we saw a man curled up behind the post-box outside Richmond Station. We checked he was OK. He wasn’t obviously drunk, but he had missed the last train, and was trying to sleep until the first departure of the morning. We gave him a bottle of water and said God bless. I guess he had no friends in Richmond. If he had had, he could have knocked on their door, even at that hour.
In Jesus’ story, the late-night traveller does have a friend’s door to knock on, who sees the fridge is empty and so knocks on another friend’s door for some food, and gets what he needs. Jesus jokes that he gets it not for friendship’s sake but just to stop him waking the whole house up, but none of this would be happening unless they were friends. Friendship underpins the whole story, and the belief that friends are people you can call on.
Jesus’ hint here is that this is how it is with you and me and God: we are friends, bound together not by command and control, nor by pragmatic self interest, but by bonds of another kind. That governs how you and I should pray – we should make calls on God as we might on a friend – and it sets the tone for how God sees us and how we should see each other. That is a big part of what the church exists for: to say and sing and do things to show that we see ourselves and each other not in the ways that the world sees us but in the ways that God sees us, ways that go beyond biology – who your parents were, what your gender is, which gender you are attracted to – ways that go beyond economics – which is why Archbishop Justin’s prophetic words about loans and usury should not be blunted by the discovery that a fraction of a per cent of our church’s money is invested unhelpfully – ways that go beyond history and culture.
Jesus calls us friends, and Jesus is the human face of God, so we are our friends of God, which is why our central act of worship is not a parade before our commander, or an audience with our ruler, but a gathering around a table, a meal, a feast of love for a society of friends. It’s well put by Francis Spufford in a book everyone in this church would profit from reading this Summer. It’s called Unapologetic.
If you come to a parish church in England after the service, what you will see is a (small) crowd of elderly people, middle-aged people and young families, balancing biscuits and cups of coffee in one hand as we do crowd control on the children with the other, and making slightly awkward conversation about the weather, holidays, cricket scores, the news, the progress of flowers and vegetables. We don’t necessarily have very much in common with each other, by all the usual standards…
So then, what makes this different from a meeting of the Richmond Society, or any other really worthwhile leisure-hours gathering ?
…And yet that’s not all that is going on. We’re also celebrating the love-feast. Our hearts are in our eyes as we look at each other. We are engaged in the impossible experiment of trying to see each other the way God sees us. That is, as if we were all precious beyond price, for reasons quite independent of any of the usual cues for attraction we apes jump to recognise: status, charisma, beauty, confidence, wealth, wisdom, authority.
The man on the radio has always read the football results as if people were involved, people who matter. For much the same reason, God came among us, spoke to us, in and as Jesus of Nazareth, the word made flesh. In John’s gospel, on the night he gives us this meal, Jesus the master says to his disciples,
No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends. (John 15.15)
And so he calls us.
James Alexander Gordon http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/23431480 He regrets he has never been able to read, ‘Forfar Athletic five, East Fife four’.
Unapologetic Francis Spufford, Faber 2012, page 202.