Today’s sermon

I preached at St. John’s again this morning. I must say that I was quite chuffed when 10 people or so after the service came up to me and told me what a good sermon it was. Normally you can tell when people say, “Nice sermon, Father” and are just saying it to be nice to you. These people I think really did like it.

As a preacher, you can tell when people are listening to you. There’s usually a rustle in the church; people might be whispering to each other, or turning the pages of the service booklet, or are shuffling around from cheek to cheek trying to get comfortable. However, when people are listening to what you have to say, the church is still. There’s no rustling, no shifting around. Everyone is looking at you up in the pulpit and no one dares to think of rustling, they’re so rapt. I achieved that today. Yay, God!

19 July 2007
Sermon delivered at St. John’s Larcom St. Readings: Gen 18:20-32; Ps. 137; Col 2:12-14; Luke 11:1-13

In the name of God, the one, the Undivided Trinity. AMEN.

A woman who was in the hospital with a serious illness was praying.
She prayed to God to tell her how much time she had left on Earth.
And God answered her: You have 24 years, 7 months, and 23 days left to live.
The woman recovered, and, armed with the certain knowledge of the time left to her,
she consulted a plastic surgeon and had her face lifted, her nose fixed, her tummy tucked, and the rest of her body sculpted.
She went to a dentist and had her teeth fixed.
She went to an eye doctor and had laser eye surgery and threw away her glasses.
Finally, she left the hospital, crossed the street, and was hit by a car and died.
When she got to heaven, she said to God: “You told me I had more than 24 years to live! Instead I was cut down by a car within a month. Why did you let that happen?
God answered: “After all the surgery you had I didn’t recognise you.”

The readings from Genesis and the Gospel tell us about prayer.
Prayer is something that we are taught from our earliest age, and something that we are meant to do until we die, if not afterwards as well.
But like the woman in the story above, we sometimes treat prayer as a telephone line to God.
We ask for something, and God either answers us or doesn’t.
Sometimes we get what we want, and sometimes we don’t.
Sometimes, in spite of our own prayers as well as those of others, bad things happen to us or our family and friends.
How often have we prayed that a good friend or a close relative will be healed of sickness or infirmity, only to see that person deteriorate and die?
How often do we pray for ourselves, asking God to give us health, strength, wealth, or standing in the community?
And how often are those prayers answered in the way we intended?

Abraham is bargaining with God in our Genesis reading.
Sodom and Gomorrah are symbols in the Scriptures for extremely evil places.
He bargains God down from sparing Sodom and Gomorrah if 50 just men live there, to sparing them if merely 10 just men live there.
It’s an interesting picture of this God who can be jawed down from his original intentions through shrewd words from a mere man.
We can hope that our bargaining with God might be just as successful.

But, Jesus, in the Gospel reading, teaches us a much different way to pray.
We should start by praising God, then ask for those things we need to live, and then ask to be forgiven for past sins and spared from future temptation.
And Jesus tells us to be persistent, as in the end persistence pays off.

But he goes on to say “Ask and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.”
And here is the mystery of prayer. Nowhere does Jesus say that what we ask for will be given to us.

Ask, and something or other will be given to you.
Search, and you will find something or other.
Knock, and some door or other will be opened to you.

Prayer is not a certain path to health, wealth, or standing in the community.
We often ask for something that is not granted to us.
We get something else, which may or may not be good for us.
We may actually get nothing.
So why pray at all?

The rector of my parish in San Francisco used to say, quoting someone else, “Prayer doesn’t work on God, it works on us.”
And that’s the secret of prayer, or the mystery of prayer, or even the mystery of God’s actions in the world.
Prayer subtly changes the persons who practice it.

What we ask for is not as important as the fact that we are asking.
What we are looking for is not as important as the search.
Which door we want opened to us is not as important as looking for a door to open.

In asking, we admit that we are not self-sufficient but depend on the grace of God for our life and health.
In searching, we admit that only God knows everything, and our knowledge is deficient.
In knocking on a door, we admit that not all paths are open to us without the guidance of God.

Prayer is thus not bargaining with God, despite Abraham’s success.
Praise and petition in equal measure constitute prayer after the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

And God is not amazon dot co dot uk or the Littlewoods catalogue.
You can’t call God up and order whatever you want in the knowledge that in a few days an angel will knock at the door and deliver your order.
It doesn’t work that way.

God knows what we need before we ask for whatever we think we need.
And God sometimes delivers a surprise rather than what we ordered.

Sometimes we ask for a life, and God takes one instead.
Sometimes we ask for sustenance, and we go hungry.
But the readings today give us one assurance: no matter what we pray for, God is listening, and changing us with every prayer we utter.
Our prayers, working on us, help our transformation into people who do not just ask God for what we want.
We are transformed into people who trust that God will provide us with what we need, and are thankful. AMEN


I am trying to shift my preaching style away from long sentences and paragraphs, to short, pithy, sentences. The format I typed it in above tries to duplicate how I delivered it. The next step is to memorise it and dispense with the paper. I’m terrified of that.

Afterwards we had a drink in the Vicarage and discussed our recent holidays, ours to the Far East and theirs to Croatia, which seemed to be nice despite the 40+ degree heat.

We were supposed to go to lunch at The Well with . So as it was getting towards 1:15 pm we walked over there–we were alone. After waiting for 1/2 hour and consuming two bowls of prawn crackers, I decided to go home and ditch my alb and tie and get my mobile phone, as I never take it to church with me: the opportunities for embarrassment are much too likely to happen, and I wouldn’t care ot have the phone ring while I was in the pulpit preaching.

Turns out that he wanted to cancel due to a last-minute change of plan, but couldn’t get hold of us (as our mobile phones were here). Bless him, he came back to The Well and ate with us and even treated us, before going off to the last-minute change of plan. Thanks muchly.

We came home and I continued with the new Harry Potter. I find it a bit tiresome; it’s kind of like a book set in a big railway station where trains and people are continuously coming and going. I hope to finish it tonight if HWMBO will let me read while we watch a DVD…

Later note: He didn’t.

3 Responses to “Today’s sermon”

  1. thoburn says:

    He didn’t answer my prayer 🙁

  2. spwebdesign says:

    That is a wonderful sermon, and it echoes what so many have been trying to teach me about prayer in the past few months. You might be interested in one of the books I’m currently reading, The Essence of Prayer by Ruth Burrows, a Carmelite nun. It says essentially what you’ve said, of course, but it’s still a wonderful, elegantly written book worth reading.

  3. chrishansenhome says:

    Oh dear. Not in any way? Remember, prayer works on you, not on God. Has prayer changed you in some way? If you need someone to listen feel free to contact me by private email.