Sermon by the Reverend Trevor Jamison preached at St Columba’s United Reformed Church, February 24th 2019 On the occasion of “Emily’s” baptism
(Names of the one baptised and her parents have been changed)
How often do you pray and for what? I ask that in the confidence that most of you do so. According to a survey undertaken in January last year, over half of the UK population prays. Yes, you’re not as weird as you thought you were.
This is not just about those who go to church, or those who believe in some sort of – any sort of – God or divine being. This is a survey of a representative sample of the general UK population – believers, agnostics and atheists – and more than half of us pray.
Just over half of those of us who do pray, are more likely to do so when we are cooking or when we are exercising. Only one in three people pray in a place of worship, which is similar to the number of us who pray when we wake up or when we go to bed. So, there’s a lot of truth in …
“The moment I wake up
Before I put on my makeup
I say a little prayer for you.”
By the way, for the avoidance of doubt, I’m quoting Aretha Franklin there. I’m not describing my morning makeup regime.
The same survey tells us that less than half of us who pray believe that God answers prayers, which makes you wonder why we pray. On the other hand, four in ten who pray believe that doing so changes the world.
So, confident that I am addressing a majority here at least as large as that which voted for Brexit, I ask, how often do you pray, and for what? In the general UK population, of those who pray, 71% pray for family, 42% pray, thanking God, 40% pray for healing, and 40% for friends. Only a quarter of us pray-ers are praying for wider concerns such as poverty, disaster, political situations, or war. How often do you pray, and for what? And also, if you were to make a prayer right here and now, what would it be, or for whom?
Maybe you would want to say a prayer for Emily, in these, her early days in life, journeying through an uncertain world; perhaps someday, turning to prayer herself. Maybe you would want to pray a prayer for Emily’s parents, Karen and Sam, and their responsibility to ensure, as far as is possible, that Emily grows and thrives, physically, emotionally, socially, economically and spiritually. With that weight of responsibility thrust upon them, maybe Sam and Karen will be offering a few (additional?) prayers of their own over the coming days, weeks, months and years. Also, perhaps you yourself have deep, urgent needs that drive you to say a prayer for yourself, and/or for those close to you.
I’m wondering all of this about prayer because of something that caught my attention in the Bible reading we heard earlier in the service. This is in many ways a strange reading. Jesus, having taken his three close disciples, Peter, James, and John, up a mountain, is transformed – transfigured – in their sight: ‘his face changed appearance and his clothes became dazzling white.’ (9:29) And then Peter, James and John see him in conversation with two of the “greats” from Israel’s history: Moses and Elijah. Then there’s a cloud that envelopes them and a voice – God’s – from heaven, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!’ (9:35)
Now, there have been any number of sermons preached over the years about all sorts of different aspects of this event, known as “The Transfiguration of Jesus”. Today, though, what caught my attention, was that all of it, this change in Jesus – his face and clothes, and these events – appearance of heroes, big cloud, voice from heaven, they all kicked off with, ‘and while he [Jesus] was praying.’ (9:29) Which makes me wonder, do we pray with the expectation that things will then change?
Take the case of Henry, aged 64, interviewed in connection with that survey. He prays every night, kneeling by his bed, despite not being “religious”. “I worry about it quite a lot – is it some kind of an insurance policy, is it superstition or is it something more real?”
Asked if he believes in God, he says: “I don’t know but I would describe myself as at the sceptical end of agnosticism. I certainly wouldn’t classify myself as religious.”
Henry starts by silently reciting the Lord’s Prayer and then asks for his loved ones to be kept safe and well. “Sometimes I include other specific people or suffering groups. Then I have a fuzzy moment about me – not concrete thoughts, and I don’t ask for specific things.”
He says he had no idea if God hears his prayers; and says the act of praying does not make him feel better. “I wonder why I don’t stop doing it. Sometimes I feel it’s a kind of hypocrisy.”
Well, if Henry asked me for advice, I would tell him to keep on praying … and I’d say the same to Henrietta. Whatever else is changed by our prayers, we are changed by them. What happened with Jesus on that mountain top is obviously at the extreme end of the scale, but then, as well as being human, like us, Jesus is also different from us. I’m not suggesting that our facial appearance will change (spiritual botox) or that our clothes will no longer need the washing machine. It is my observation, though, that when we pray, we change.
If you pray for yourself then you need to ask yourself what sort of person you think you are, and what sort of person you want to be. Some of our prayers about ourselves, after all, are about changing who we are, even if they are only along the lines of, “O God, get me out of this and I’ll never do that again.” (Bye the bye, you can’t really complain too much if you didn’t get the answer you wanted to this prayer if you never really intended to stop doing that, whatever “that” might be.) I’m struck, though, that in churches, when we pray, we often ask that people will be healthy and healed, that the poor will escape poverty, that the world will be at peace, that we will look after God’s planet. And the first step to changing such things (which involves us changing) is to think about them, which you have to do if you want to pray about them.
So, praying changes us, but does it change situations? Yes, the events up on the mountain top start with Jesus and with the change that comes about in him when he prayers. But you can’t divorce the change that takes place in Jesus, the individual, from the wider story. Jesus is not alone, either on the mountaintop or in everyday life. That’s symbolised by the fact that he’s there with three friends, three followers. And the vision of Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus, about what is going to happen to him when he ends his journey in Jerusalem, tells us that this all occurs within the context of a bigger story; the story of Israel, in which Moses and Elijah feature prominently. And that story fits inside the story of this world, with all its inhabitants, human and otherwise, including ourselves. Yes, prayer changes we who pray, but does it change anything else in this world?
It’s a lot harder to give an answer to that question. I know that praying changes me. I can see how those who pray are changed by doing so. But do our prayers change situations, for ourselves, for our families, for our friends, for the wider world? As we heard, Henry isn’t convinced God hears his prayer: ‘I wonder why I don’t stop doing it.’ And although I might tell Henry to keep praying because I’m confident it has a positive effect on him, I’m more cautious about telling him to keep praying because prayer changes situations; it’s just very hard to tell.
Though, despite not been able to prove that prayer “works”, let me tell why I keep on praying for situations. Back in the1980s, as I attended church on Sundays, week-in-week-out, three situations would come up in our prayers. We kept on praying that they would change – that God would change them – even though it was apparent that no power on earth was going to change them any time soon. We prayed about them because the habit of pray had changed us so that we felt we had to remember others, even if our prayers would not change their situation.
What were these three situations about which we prayed? What was it we were praying God would change, even though, in our heart of hearts, we did not really believe that change would happen? We prayed that the division between Communist Eastern Europe and democratic Western Europe would end. We prayed that the apartheid regime in South Africa would fall and it would be replaced by majority rule. We prayed that violence would come to end in Northern Ireland. But what hope was there that our prayers were ever going to change any of that?
To what extent did these changes come about because of our prayers and the prayers of millions of others? No one knows for sure. Was it just coincidence that what millions prayed for was what, more or less, came to be? Who knows? Was it just luck? When Gary Player was accused of being a lucky golfer, he replied, “Maybe so, but I’ve found that the more I practice the luckier I get!” And the more we prayed, the luckier we seemed to get. So maybe we’ll pray for Emily and Karen and Sam, and others, in the reasonable hope that our prayers will change not just ourselves but their situations too.
And then, finally, as well as changing ourselves, and changing our situation, our prayer might change our relationship with God. Back to taking a lesson from Henry: “Then I have a fuzzy moment about me – not concrete thoughts, and I don’t ask for specific things.” Henry leaves a space for God to be at work in the way God wills; not attempting to dictate to God what to do; not confusing God with Santa Claus, handing out gifts to those good boys and girls who remember to say their prayers. In our prayers I think there should be such a “fuzzy moment” where we let God have a say in who we are, what we think, and what we want; prayer which changes not just us, not just our situation, but how we relate to God and God with us.
So, to the majority among us, I say, “keep on praying.” To the rest of us, I say, give it a go, and see who and what changes. Pray for Emily, Karen and Sam; pray those you love and those you find hard to love; pray for family and pray for friends; pray for the world and pray for yourself; and, please, while you’re at it, don’t forget … to say one for me. Amen.