Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 30 October 2011
30 October 2011 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
The soldiers and sailors prayed hard on the long voyage to fight a war on the remote Falkland Islands; they prayed rather less when they were safely on their way back. So noted one of the chaplains - ruefully, but with no surprise. Who amongst us can say we haven’t done the same? Whether we have strong faith, or little faith, danger can turn us all into ardent pray-ers. A spell of fair weather and we soon slip back to being only perfunctory pray-ers. Does this matter? Does it matter that we treat God as a young child often treats its parents: asking much when we need something, neglectful and self-absorbed when we don’t? Does God mind? If we ascribe anything like human feelings to God, I suspect His reaction will be much as the Chaplain’s. He will be disappointed: He longs for more than a mercenary relationship with us. But also, I suspect, He will be no less understanding than a parent: He won’t throw any prayer back in our faces, even if it is largely self-centred.
But our human shortcomings, and God’s attitude to them, is not the chief problem of prayer I want to address this morning, in this last sermon in a series about facing honestly the difficulties of belief. It is a more basic problem: whether prayer really makes any difference anyway? Not just a difference to ourselves, a way of easing our mind, or motivating us, or coming to terms with God’s will - it may well do that. But can prayer also actually change a situation itself, not just our feelings about it? For don’t try to tell me as some philosophers do that there is no outside world beyond our feelings and all that matters is how we view things. Some things cry out to be changed whatever we are feeling about them. And our faith encourages us to think our prayers can help do this. ‘Ask and you will receive... whatever you ask in my name I will grant you’, Jesus is recorded as saying. The problem is, God doesn’t always seem to do anything. For every testimony of answered prayer there are others where there seems no answer. It provokes the inevitable question: is it because God will not, or cannot? Or because there is no personal God at all? Prayer, so much the very pulse and life-blood of faith, can also become the slow death of faith when a deafening silence is all we hear back. And when faith attempts to explain this silence it often sounds only like fudge and fog…
A recent exchange between a former Archbishop and a Jewish Scholar shows something of the difficulty of giving convincing explanations. They were debating just this - whether petitionary prayer has any power really to change the course of things. The Archbishop was sure it can, but only up to a point. God can change things, he thought, because there is randomness and uncertainty built into the very structure of the world, right down to the sub-atomic level of mind and matter, and that’s the space in which God can act. But, by the same token, God too is subject to the same uncertainties. He can only act through the uncertainties of what we give Him, in our prayers and actions. In the words of a celebrated prayer ‘He has no hands but ours’. So God is very limited in what He can do in this world.
The Jewish Scholar, however, was not impressed. If the world has so much uncertainty and randomness, even for God, then how can we believe God’s promises? The God of the Hebrew Bible consistently offers promises. These cannot be just pious hopes and divine bluffs. They must be based on God’s certain power to control this world and its future. And for this to be the case God cannot be imprisoned in time like us. The unfolding of the events in this world are all steered by a God who can already see the end from the beginning. But - that would also mean we and our prayers have little real freedom to change things. Our prayers might well be means by which we relate to God and discover His will, but they are not means to change events. And that is why they often seem unanswered.
Who is right? As so often when trying to understand the mysteries of faith, I suspect a false alternative. Perhaps we should try a bigger picture altogether. Yes, a world which does incorporate real uncertainties, where we have to offer prayers and live lives with no visible assurance in time of their future outcome. But alongside that, can we not also imagine a God who is not just with us in this sort of world, but also inhabiting a different frame in eternity? A God who stands like a master weaver on the other side of the great loom of history, receiving all the threads we push through to Him from our side in time, all our actions and prayers, all natural causes, good, bad, uncertain, unpredictable and often competing: yet, because He can see them all, a God who is still able to weave them all into some final good outcome.The intricacy of that divine task is beyond our imagining, so the way God takes account of any particular prayer will not always be evident from our side of the loom, confined as we are in our small part of space and time. Sometimes the threads will go straight in and we can see answers, luminously, wonderfully, here in time: a person healed; a life saved, the abolition of slavery, perhaps an Arab Spring? But often we will not - for however heartfelt and obvious a particular outcome for which we pray, there is that multitude of other competing causes which defer how it is fulfilled to some other part of the tapestry, beyond our sight. Yet not out of God’s sight. Every thread is still used somewhere in the whole pattern.
The Archbishop and the Jewish Scholar may well have objections to this picture. And so will we all at times. It will still seem like fudge and fog to one crying out in distress and not hearing an immediate answer. But I am not lightly going to abandon it. Its appeal to a new view of time is not unthinkable for modern science. More important, it marries so much scripture and experience in which answers to prayer are promised and experienced, yet also often deferred with a different meaning. And it is a picture which gives us heart to keep praying: to persist like the widow in Jesus’s parable who kept asking; to persist, even when prayer only seems to meet silence; to continue to pour our longings into the web of this world’s winding course. For they will be woven in, in some way. Like the cries of even a selfish child, they will always make a real connection with a real and gracious God, who does hear, and who will in the end keep all his promises.