The Last Taboo

Sunday 21st October 2007
Year C, The Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Holy Eucharist
Luke 18:1-8

One of the most famous stories about the fear of looking stupid is Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor's New Clothes. The Emperor is conned into buying a magic outfit. His Courtiers are so frightened of looking stupid that he goes out naked and it takes a little boy to utter the dreadful words: "The king is in the altogether."

This is the problem that many of us have with talking honestly about prayer which is as taboo as talking about sex or money. Well, actually, nowadays it is easier to talk about sex or money than prayer. So the question for today is: is prayer talk the last taboo?

In today\'s Gospel Luke is talking about the simplest form of prayer. This feisty lady wants justice and, in the end, the judge gives way in case she gives him a black eye. It\'s a paradox; it\'s what a policeman would call demanding justice with menaces. We are frequently in the same situation; I wouldn\'t go as far as recommending that we give Jesus a black eye but how often do we talk straight; how often do we confront Him?

"Well, Lord, I'm praying to you and I really want my friend to get better."

And a week later: "She isn't better, Lord."

And a month later: "You haven't done anything lord."

Well, you're never going to be able to talk straight if the relationship is that sketchy.

On the other hand the routine might go: "Look Lord, I really want my friend to get better and I won't stop praying until it's settled one way or the other."

Next day: "Look Lord, I told you yesterday ...."

And the next day ... and the next day.

And then, after you've been praying constantly for weeks on end and you get really worked up you can say: "Look Lord, it's a bit much. Why aren't you doing anything? Just tell me."

Now that might sound like really outrageous language but like all the language about mysteries it can't be directly translated into human behaviour. The idea is in three parts: first, praying isn't a casual thing you do when something goes wrong, or so wrong that you are moved to get off your spiritual bottom and do something. Prayer is the religious equivalent of going to the gym, day in, day out, whether you enjoy it or hate it, whether it makes you feel better or worse. Prayer isn't the voluntary exercise of a Christian preference it's the necessary practice (a good word that) of a faithful Christian. But when you go to the gym you have to learn how to use the different pieces of equipment and how to increase your stamina and effectiveness. You can't get from slob to gold medallist just like that.

Secondly, when we confront Jesus it doesn't cause dismay; it causes a smile in heaven; not only has a lost sheep returned to the fold, it's become frisky. There is that wonderful phrase in the First letter of Peter, "A lively hope"; and the idea of prayer is that it should sometimes be lively, even combative.

The third and most difficult part of this mystery is that there is no connection between asking and receiving. So why does Jesus urge us to pray; and why will we pray for a variety of good causes after the Creed? Praying this kind of intercessory prayer, the sort we have been talking about so far, is the exercise of our self discipline to lay our concerns before Jesus; this forces us to think about what concerns us, engendering a loving frame of mind. We are not praying to be rich or to have an easy life, but for other people, for justice and health. Prayer is a power house but God channels the power.

And the relationship we have as creatures with our Creator is nothing to do with bargains: if I give you so many prayers you give me justice in Burma. We all know it doesn't work like that but we still persist in making the connection. We pray for the healing of a sick person but what we are really praying is that it will be The Lord's will that the person is cured; and, in the meantime, we will be expressing our solidarity with the sick person. God Our Parent can and sometimes does intervene, as with the Incarnation, in human history but that intervention does not depend on the number of people who have signed a petition.

When we think of prayer as deal-making we do ourselves and the reputation of God serious damage. Non believers quite rightly point out that if we pray for healing and attribute a cure to our prayers we must equally be forced to attribute death to the failure of our prayers. And so, if you say a prayer when you are looking for a parking space, do you blame God if you don't find one?

We ask of the Creator because we are creatures; to ask is part of what we are. But, equally, part of what we are is learning to accept that we are not here to bargain. We will not really understand our position until we see everything we have as a gift. There is no harm in asking for further gifts for others or, even on occasion, for ourselves; but we are dealing exclusively in the gift economy.

Which is why we need to go on praying regardless of the short term results. Praying is our way of building a relationship with God which is the purpose for which we were created; and part of that relationship will be turbulent but only if we have gained the right. In our own lives we feel much less inhibited in our families than with mere acquaintances. If we are sporadic and cool in our prayer we will never become truly part of the family of God which allows us more freedom. When we pray after the Creed we should ask ourselves how far we have earned the right to confront Jesus.