The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      28th July 2019
Talking to God
Andrew Penny

Long ago I remember chatting, after school to another parent at HPS, and being told by our children that they had been talking to God that day. The other parent (who was rather high church) was very dismissive of “talking to God” but it seemed to me to not a bad way of describing prayer for a 7 year old, and indeed a grown up, although in both cases I’d like to expand it “to talking to God and trying to listen to God” because when we talk, or pray, we are hoping for a response of some sort; perhaps forgiveness; perhaps the sense of an anxiety or a joy shared; perhaps direction and clarity when we are lost or in the dark.

There is plenty of talking to God in the Bible and we have had two examples in our readings about Abraham disputing the fate of Sodom and Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray.

Abraham’s dispute with God, like those of Moses later, is really intended to tell us about the nature of God who is angry and wanting to punish bad human behaviour but (usually) persuaded to relent. It is God’s immoveable purpose but also his grace and generosity that tend emerge. It is God’s reaction to the talking that matters, rather than the discussion itself, which, to be frank, can on occasion be a little unedifying.

Turning to Jesus teaching the disciples to pray, we might first ask why they needed or wanted to be taught- they were all devout Jews, wouldn’t they know how to pray already? The reason we are told was that John had taught his disciples to pray and the twelve felt left out. I am guessing, but I suspect the underlying need here is for a different sort of prayer. John’s message was of personal salvation; the individual repented and was baptised thus finding peace with his or herself and with God. Although Jesus has much to say about society and community, his message too is primarily to the individual and in nearly all the miracles - in fact all, if one probes- we find Jesus encountering an individual or group of individuals with a desperate problem of some sort which Jesus cures or resolves, by changing their lives. This individualism is only emphasised by the contrast with the frequent crowds in the Gospels, whether adulating or hostile. It is natural then that when Jesus (and I suspect John too) taught how to pray, the prayer was concerned with how the individual should  relate to God.

One shouldn’t perhaps over generalise about a collection as diverse as  the Old Testament, but  I can’t help noticing one of the huge differences in the themes of the Old and New Testaments, is the primary concern with the nation and the community in the former and the individual in the latter. There are of course, huge personalities in the Old Testament story, patriarchs, judges, prophets and kings but their significance (and sometimes their failure) is as leaders and guides of the people. The Gospels are concerned too with the Kingdom of God- the society which the Gospel initiates and which we are left to achieve, but even in the Kingdom of God individuals-and the humblest most marginalised individuals, matter.

The Old Testament concerns are reflected in its prayers, most notably the Psalms. These do, it is true often voice the concerns of the individual although more often in a communal context, and mostly they are the cries of woe or shouts of joy of the community. They address God as “the Lord” using cosmic or regal imagery; Jesus’ prayer (despite its name) is a sharp contrast “Our Father, which art in Heaven..”; we are immediately in family imagery and a personal relationship with God. The prayer goes on to ask for help as individuals, acknowledging that we must respond and act ourselves,- “as we forgive those who trespass against us” – if we are to receive grace.

The parental or family context of the prayer, introduces, or perhaps just amplifies, a vital aspect of our relationship with God. It is a relationship like that of human love, most acutely the love of spouses (if we are lucky) or parent and child. We cannot hide our thoughts from those we truly love; we have to say sorry when we have hurt the relationship; we cannot repress voicing our anxieties and acknowledging our reliance (as we in turn offer support). There is an inevitability and a necessity in this intercourse, and I think it is the same necessity and inevitability that characterises our relationship with God, expressed in prayer. On might even say that God is simply the being to whom we must pray; prayer defines  God as God defines prayer.

That is perhaps why the Lord’s prayer is not an exclusively Christian prayer. I gave much offensive pointing this out to an evangelical colleague, now ordinand. We were discussing the content of our firm’s Carol Service, which I aim to make as inclusive as possible, and there is surely nothing more inclusive that the Lord’s Prayer which can be prayed with a clear conscience by a Muslim and a Jew, and, I believe, most other religions. That is because it expresses the essence of what faith and religion are about.

It is, however, not merely talking to God; it expects, or hopes for, a response from God and action on our part; we know that God will help us, but it is we who have to make God’s will be done on earth; it for us to forgive that we may enjoy the freedom of forgiveness; we need our daily bread to nourish us, not just for ourselves but in order to have the strength to do all that is required of us. And impliedly, the prayer asks for guidance- we ask to be shown what God’s will is, that we can bring about its realisation on earth.  If I were dictator of the world, or perhaps just Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope, rolled into one, I would stop the Lord’s prayer where Jesus stops it and leave out the “For thine is the kingdom” stuff; instead I’d impose a compulsory silence of a minute or so, when having talked at God, we would listen to his answer and take his instructions. To him the power and the  glory should indeed be ascribed but meanwhile we are his agents, needing forgiveness, encouragement, guidance, but most of all just needing to get on with the task in hand. Amen.

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