Our help is in the name of the Lord: Sermon at St Agnes, Ullet Road

Sermon

Ordinary Sunday 29 C

16 October, 2016

 

St Agnes, Ullet Rd, Liverpool

Exodus 17: 8-13

Psalm120:1-8

2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:2

Luke 18:1-8

 

The four readings of today’s Mass are like four pieces of a jigsaw. When we put them together they provide a wonderful picture, a wonderful teaching on prayer. At the heart of that teaching is the command contained at the beginning of the Gospel that w epray continually.

It might seem like an impossible command! How can we pray continually when we have to sleep; drive the car; cook the dinner; work; talk to friends and live our lives?

How can we be like God, in the responsorial psalm, psalm 120 who never sleeps or slumbers?

How can we be like Moses in the first reading whose prayer for Israel in fighting the Amalekites means he has to keep his arms raised high throughout the battle?

 

Well, I want to offer you three teachings. Two, that emerge from the readings today and one that is contained in both today’s Gospel and next Sunday’s Gospel which form a single teaching in the Gospel of Luke.

 

There is a good deal of humour in the Gospel account of the widow who won’t give up; who keeps pestering the judge for justice; and in the judge who finally gives in for a quiet life. There is even more humour in the Greek in which St Luke writes. The phrase that is translated in the Jerusalem version – which we have just heard – as ‘worry me to death’ is better translated ‘beat me black and blue’ or as the Jesuit Nicholas King puts it in his translation: ‘give me a black eye’.

 

Just thing how radical this story is as well as humourous. Jesus encourages us t think of God as an unjust judge.

And that’s right isn’t it? We have all, surely, felt that the world is an unjust place; that the righteous suffer with the unrighteous and there are few rewards for good behaviour. To be angry with God is a natural human emotion.

More than that, Jesus lets us think about beating God up: giving God a black eye, beating him black and blue.

So, in this Gospel Jesus tells us, commands us to pray continually, like the woman pestering the judge.

In the first reading we see a wonderful teaching of one important means we need if we are going to persevere in prayer: the support of friends.

That old chestnut of ‘I am a Christian, but I don’t go to church’. Or, ‘You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian’ expressed as a statement rather than a question is refuted by the reality of life as portrayed in the first reading from Exodus. I the long struggle of life; in the battles and difficulties which everyone faces in life we need to pray constantly, but if we are going to do that we need our friends, we need a community to put a rock under us to sit on and to hold us up when we are tired and weary.

Those who are not believers often assume that faith is easiest when things are difficult: ‘It must be nice to pray when life is hard.’ That may be the case for some people, and I don’t know about you but I find prayer easiest when life is going well; a beautiful autumn morning, leaves rustling under my feet.

I find prayer hard when things are tough; when I’ve fallen out with someone I care about; when work isn’t going well or when I am unwell or just feeling down. It’s then that like Moses, I need to eb able to email my friends and ask them to pray for me. It’s then that I need the discipline of praying the Daily Office, knowing that I am supported by people praying around the world. It’s then that I need to get to church as often as I can, ideally daily, so that I can feel supported, my arms lifted up by others.

 

So, the first teaching on prayer in today’s readings: we need oyr friends to pray with us. We need our Christian community.

 

The second teaching is in the second reading, from St Paul’s letter to Timothy which we are reading in sequence at Mass on Sunday over these last weeks of the liturgical year. It is the reason for our prayer:

‘Proclaim the message’, says St Paul, welcome or unwelcome.

Every Christian is called by God to be a missionary; every Christian is called by God to proclaim the good news. But we will only be able to do that if we have something to proclaim; if we have a relationship with God ourselves; if we have something to tell people first-hand.

There is no point telling people that some people have an experience of God, we need to be able to say: yes, I experience God in my prayer, day after day. There are some souls from whom God withdraws his presence; the experience of his love; these are mature souls, chosen by God for their resilience and perseverance. I am glad to say that for most of the simple experience of God’s loving presence can be a daily reality.

 

So a second teaching on my prayer from today’s readings. We pray so that we can proclaim the message. So that we can have good news to tell others.

 

And a third, final teaching.

How are we going to pray continually as Jesus wants us to?

Well, there is one thing, and one thing only that we do as long as we are alive: we breathe.

From the first breath of a baby new born from the womb to the last gasping breath of the dying, our breath is our only certainty in life.

So we need to make our prayer our breathing. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition this is done through the use of the Jesus Prayer. And it is not a coincidence that the pair of stories in Luke chapter 18 that we hear today and next week at Mass provide the source of the Jesus Prayer. At the beginning of chapter 18, as we have just heard, Jesus gives his command to pray continually, he then gives us the humorous story of the widow and the unjust judge; then he tells us – and we’ll hear about this next Sunday more, about the Pharisee and the tax collector. It is the tax-collector who is the model of prayer saying simply: God, be merciful to me a sinner.

The Jesus Prayer does nothing other than put these two Gospel passages together: the command to pray continually and the words of the tax-collector, adding to them the name of the one who saves us:

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

 

My dear friends, this is a most profound teaching, and a most profound prayer.

 

Pray it with your breath; breathing in:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.

Breathing out: have mercy on me a sinner.

Pray it aloud when you can, when you are alone at home or in the car; pray it silenetly in your head when you are with others.

Pray it hundreds, thousands of times a day. Pray it so that even when you don’t think about it your breathing is praying for you.

You will find that this prayer descends deep into your being; that it leaves your head and enters your heart; your guts. You will fall asleep breathing this prayer; you will wake up breathing it.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Try it this morning as we have moments of silence before the Creed, try it after you have received communion.

 

I guarantee if you pray this prayer faithfully; if you make it your closest friend your life will be transformed; you will experience the presence of God every day; you will have an anchor a rock of refuge in every storm and battle. You will know the truth of Psalm 120:

 

Psalm 120

 

I lift up my eyes to the mountains;

from where shall come my help?

My help shall come from the LORD,

who made heaven and earth.

 

He will keep your foot from stumbling.

Your guard will never slumber.

No, he sleeps not nor slumbers,

Israelʼs guard.

 

The LORD your guard, the LORD your shade

at your right hand.

By day the sun shall not smite you,

nor the moon in the night.

 

The LORD will guard you from evil;

he will guard your soul.

The LORD will guard your going and coming,

both now and forever.

 

My dear brothers and sisters:

Our help is the name of the Lord: who made heaven and earth.

 

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