Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Fourth Sunday of Easter 2017
Start Date 7th May 2017 10:00am

The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
In extremis, when we’re under great stress, faith and prayer is instinctive. Faced with fear, prayer is drawn out of almost all of us as inexorably and naturally as our breathing changes and our pulse increases. I’ve been doing a lot of flying recently and observed it: the closed eyes at take-off; Chaplains observe it in patients facing medical trauma; and in soldiers going to war.  

What they also ruefully observe, of course, is that there is rather less faith and prayer on display when the stress recedes.  A point not lost on sceptics.  If faith and prayer only tends to surface under stress, does this suggest it’s really only a device to ease our minds, not a connection with a real God who can act in response?  Reflecting further on prayer, especially petitionary prayer which asks for things, can increase this scepticism.  How can God change the existing causal network of things just in response to our prayers?  And in any case, doesn’t experience discredit it?  ‘Ask and you will receive’ said Jesus, but often it seems we don’t, at least not straightforwardly (not even Jesus did in Gethsemane).  And any attempt to explain this - as God just testing us, perhaps, as we heard in our reading, or telling us that that prayer is more about relationship with God not asking for things - can sound only like fudge and fog, just an evasion of the hard truth that really there is no God answering at all…

So it is that this instinct for prayer, apparently the very pulse and lifeblood of our faith, when we reflect on it, can actually become the slow death of our faith.

But it need not!  And in these morning sermons during May I want to offer some brief reflections on a number of difficulties of our faith, to show how reflecting on them need not lead to scepticism.  Beginning this morning with petitionary prayer: how we may credibly imagine God does answer prayer in this sort of world.  

Here, for example, is one reflection offered by a former Archbishop.  He was convinced God must be responsive in some measure if He is a personal God, and  so he suggested God is able to act because of the randomness and causal uncertainty which we now know is built into the structure of the world, right down in the sub-atomic level of mind and matter.  That, he thought, is the space in which God can act without overriding the nature of this world, and so that’s the space where God will act, if our prayers have integrity. It means God’s action will only be limited, only possible when our prayers coincide with those gaps of causal uncertainty; hence the only occasional, muted, response to our prayers that we actually experience.  But it is a picture offering some hope that God can sometimes respond.

And perhaps that is one way of matching faith with experience, credibly. But think further, and can we not believe more, too?  I want to venture another picture: one which takes more seriously the promises we consistently hear in faith, that God will always answer in some way; the promises that God is always entirely faithful, and always able to respond.  Can we not imagine a God who is sharing the uncertainties and limitations imposed by this world - but who is also inhabiting a different frame, in eternity, where all things are possible, including a response to all our prayers?  

I think we can.  Try for example to imagine a God who stands like a master weaver on both sides of the great loom of history.  From our side, yes, it seems God is limited in what He can do to steer the natural and human threads of causation into the right pattern, without overriding the freedom and contingency He has given this world.  So from where we stand in time and space the tapestry of the world is often flawed, incomplete, with dark spaces, and deafening silences in our experience of prayer.  But on the other side in eternity, where God also stands receiving all the threads we are pushing through to Him from our side in time – all natural and human causes, good, bad, competing, unpredictable, including our prayers –  there, precisely because from there He can see them all from past, present and future, God is able to weave them all into some final good pattern.

Confined as we are in our small part of space and time on this side of the loom, the intricacy of that final picture is beyond us; the way our actions and prayers are responded to is mostly invisible.  Perhaps occasionally the threads of our prayers can go straight in and we can see luminous answers here and now from our side: a person healed; a life saved; an abolition of slavery; some justice done.  More often, however heartfelt our prayers, the multitude of other competing threads and causes defer how they can be threaded in so we won’t see how this is done.  Yet it is still the case that they are. Every thread is used in the pattern in some way.

Of course this picture too may still seem like fudge and fog, especially to one crying out in distress longing for an immediate answer which he cannot see.  Even so, I’m not lightly going to abandon the picture.  Its picture of time and eternity is not unthinkable for much modern science.  Its appeal to the hugeness and mystery of a God who is both immanent with us and transcendent beyond us, resonates well with centuries of mature trinitarian theology.  And it genuinely marries so much scripture and experience. It helps make sense both of scripture’s promise that prayer is answered, and our sparse experience where the answers often only seem deferred and invisible.  

It is also a picture which gives us heart to keep praying.  Like the widow in Jesus’s parable persisted, we are bound to continue, even when prayer seems to meet silence, pouring our longings into the web of this world’s winding course,  because they are ultimately being woven in.  It’s a picture, then, which means that deep instinct of faith and prayer is right after all.  It’s not false.  Reflection does not have to lead to scepticism.  God is entirely faithful.

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