Preacher The Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP
It has been an extraordinary month. Since the decision to leave the EU after the voting result that was revealed a month ago today, British political life has seen many unexpected changes, including a new Prime Minister. And Europe – particularly France and now Germany – has been targeted by acts of outlandish terrorism. The events in Nice shocked the world and this weekend fatal shootings have occurred amongst shoppers in Munich. And there have been more terrible killings in America recently. There was also the attempted military coup in Turkey, and a ferocious clamp-down in its aftermath. It seems as if the world has become even more unpredictable than usual. And with the huge ongoing mass movement of migrants and refugees we are experiencing an unfolding of world events that shock and disturb and sadden us on what seems a daily basis.
For people of faith it is inevitable that the question is asked as to where God’s love and mercy is in all this turmoil. Our Old Testament reading today from Genesis is comforting, because it reveals that people who lived as long ago as Abraham – many centuries before Christ – were asking such questions. God is outraged, so the story goes, at the wickedness of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, and intends to punish them. But Abraham, that great man of faith, pleads repeatedly with God –
“Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?”
The story is a vivid example of an individual bargaining with God. At first Abraham pleads that God will not destroy the city if 50 people who are righteous can be found. Abraham is bold in prayer before God –
“Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?”
And God agrees to forgive if 50 righteous people can be found. But Abraham is not content. He continues bargaining – what if there are 45 righteous people? Or 40? or 30? or 20? or 10?
And God agrees not to destroy the city if 10 righteous people can be found there. In the end, however, as the story continues beyond today’s passage, the only righteous people that can be found in the city are Abraham’s relative Lot and Lot’s family. Lot and his daughters are rescued – an interesting example of biblical evidence of God’s intervention to save individuals. But then the city is destroyed. What is important in the story is that God acts on a principle of justice towards individuals rather than being collectively indiscriminate in effecting justice. And of course there are echoes here of the story of Noah’s ark. Noah like Lot is rescued from destruction because not only is he righteous but he listens to God, hears what God says, and acts on what he hears in obedience.
These stories of mass destruction – whether it is the Flood, or fire and sulphur being rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah – are very challenging to our modern perception. They apparently reveal a side of God that looks very stern when faced with wrongdoing. Of course the writers of these texts were people of their time. It is all the more remarkable therefore that we have in the Old Testament in particular a passage such as today’s. Even in those much earlier times there was a strong sense that God is not merely a God of justice, but also of mercy. And that God is deeply concerned with the well-being of individuals. Abraham’s dialogue with God is a great example of persistent pleading for mercy and forgiveness to good effect.
In our gospel reading today from Luke Jesus is giving some teaching on prayer to his disciples. He tells a short parable, that is reminiscent of Abraham’s repeated petitions. He asks his disciples to imagine that one of them has a friend to whom the disciple goes at midnight. The friend is in bed and the home is locked up. But the disciple has another friend who has just arrived unexpectedly and the disciple has nothing to give his guest to eat. So he asks the friend in bed to lend him three loaves. In the end the only thing that persuades the man in bed to get up is not that it is a friend who is making a request, but rather the friend’s persistence. He realises that he won’t get any sleep unless he does as his friend asks.
Jesus teaches that this is how we need to be with God. When we have a need that only God can supply, we must simply go on and persevere in asking. I remember years ago using the traffic lights analogy for prayer with a group of children. Making our requests to God is a bit like being the driver of a car arriving at traffic lights. The lights will be either red, amber or green. Red for stop, amber for wait, and green for go : no, wait or yes – three possible answers to our prayer requests. It’s obviously a very simplistic analogy, but it has an element of truth nonetheless. When our requests to God seem never to have an answer, it can leave us almost despairing. When will justice be done? This requires great faithfulness and perseverance on our part. Even when we ask for the right things, it is also a question of the right time. One of the lines I like from Shakespeare’s play King Lear is –
“Ripeness is all”.
We see life from our own limited human perspective. Only God sees the whole picture. It can feel maddening at times, but we need never to give up on God. God never gives up on us. Jesus teaches us to ask, search, knock – to keep on in prayer even when it might seem either that God is deaf or that God must be bored with our repeated requests. But God is neither deaf nor bored. God cares for us in the intimate intricacies of our daily lives. Life at times can seem very perplexing, and suffering seem too much to bear, but God is alongside us and with us in the very midst of the perplexity and the suffering. And the story at the heart of our faith – the death and resurrection of Jesus – testifies to that. God longs to vindicate, and to turn the tables on injustice and cruelty.
The short parable in our gospel passage for today is just about one aspect of prayer: asking, whether for oneself or others. But of course prayer has many forms – adoration, praise, thanksgiving, confession, absolution, blessing….the list goes on. Meditation on a word or phrase can give way to contemplation when all seems gift and God showers us with insight. But such moments may be rare indeed. And there are many spiritual traditions of prayer, deriving from some of the great saints – Benedictine and Ignatian, Carmelite and Celtic, to mention just a few. At different times of our lives various traditions can help us. And at different stages in our spiritual journey we may find that one method of prayer no longer works for us and we then discover another form instead. This is all part of the journey. There is no necessarily “right” or “wrong” way. As someone once said,
“Pray as you can, not as you can’t”.
Prayer is about relationship – our relationship with God. Rather like our human relationships, it has its ups and downs, its exciting times and its dull times. What matters is that we keep on relating to God – and relating all aspects of our lives to God. For God is in all things, and this includes the negatives as well as the positives of our experience. In the end, all is mystery. But we can be sure that God’s love is abiding, and that the love of God is all-embracing, and there for all time and places, and reaches beyond all time and places to the eternity that is our destiny.