How to pray

October 27, 2019

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Preached by Canon Mark Collinson using Luke 18.9-14 at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 27th October 2019, the last Sunday after Trinity.

Jesus says, “All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

“All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus tells a parable to make his point. The Pharisee exalts himself seeking high social status. He is more concerned about justifying himself before God than seeking God’s forgiveness in humility.

I suspect his clothing marks him out as a dedicated lay person. He dresses appropriately for the occasion of going up into the Temple to pray. He is full of all that he has done that qualifies him for exaltation in the eyes of God and no doubt other people: he fasts and prays and gives more than even the law requires.

His world is based on comparison – he ranks himself in relation to others and not in relation to God. He tries to catch the eye of the priest or judge over coffee, and he sidles away from anyone of a lower social class, and of course, turns his nose up in contempt if he passes by anyone who will not elevate his own climb up the social scale. His religious evotion gives him a sense of entitlement.

Every conversation, every email, every post on social media (usually of the latest travel exploit), every detail of his  appearance is an expression of his self-exaltation. Even remarks of self-deprecation are designed to effuse a false

humility that polishes his outward veneer. The tax collector is the type of person the Pharisee avoids.

Tax collectors in the first century were virtually traitors. They bid for contracts from the Roman authorities that guaranteed a certain level of tax income at a particular gate of the city. All movement of trade was liable to custom duties (and no, this isn’t an oblique reference to Brexit) and the tax collector had to judge how much he could gather from his tax booth for his own profit, whilst meeting the commitment he signed up to with the Romans.

And the Romans tended to offer the tax contracts to the tax collectors who offered the highest bids in return for giving them a centurion guard for protection. The highest bids charged the highest taxes. So tax collectors were despised by Jews for acting on behalf of unclean Gentiles and penalising their own people.

In our own society it is health, wealth and education that are the markers of self-worth. People without these things can be seen by the clothes they wear; they might have zero hours contracts, and those at the very bottom of the social pile are those who have served time at the pleasure of Her Majesty…

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been learning more about the most Troubled Families in Hampshire. The 1,600 most troubled families soak up a disproportionate amount of social, health and statutory time and resources. Children in the most troubled families suffer from what are called ACE’s, which are Adverse Childhood Experiences, such as neglect, mental, physical or sexual abuse, living in houses where parents are separated, living in the midst of domestic violence, drug use, alcoholic abuse, or criminality, or children who have lived in care.

Many people in the UK, half in fact, experience at least one of these adverse experiences, but children who experience three or four over a period of time are likely to have poor health and limited opportunities to make a life for themselves, and they are likely to pass on this poverty to the next generation. These are the kind of people that today’s Pharisee couldn’t care to spend the time of day.

Jesus is not really interested in our outward facing status, our fine robes (people on the dias beware), or what other people think of us. If we use the face we put on for society to approach God then he will see straight through us. Jesus is interested in what’s going on in our hearts. So when we come to pray, what’s going on in our hearts?

My own experience of prayer is, I confess, somewhat mixed. Is it just me, or do you sometimes hear the Reader of the lesson say, ‘This is the word of Lord,’ and you realise your mind has wandered, and you wonder exactly what the Lord has just said?

Does it sometimes feel as though we say the liturgy by rote and our hearts are somewhat smothered, in a distant place, lagging behind the words on our lips.

As it says in Isaiah (29:13) ‘The Lord said: Because these people draw near with their mouths and honour me with

their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote.’

I remember Rowan Williams once saying, ‘I pray the morning office, for 20-25 minutes, often without sensing anything of the presence of God, but then, in a moment of silence, just before the end, the kingdom of heaven comes near – and that is enough for the day ahead.’ As one writer says,

True prayer is neither a mere mental exercise nor a vocal performance. It is far deeper than that – it is a spiritualtransaction with the Creator of Heaven and Earth.

Today’s Pharisee isn’t even interested in yearning for that moment of connection with God that the tax-collector is looking for. The tax-collector isn’t asking for God’s mercy because he’s a tax collector. He’s asking for God’s mercy because he knows the state of his own heart.

Our hearts can continually deceive us by leading us towards things that are not good for us. If left unchecked, we yearn for what can destroy us. As Jeremiah says, (17:9) ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it.’

So we need to nurture our hearts with the truth of God’s word, so that, as Psalm 119 says, the word of God dwells within us, and our hearts are shaped by the Lord’s commandments, so that we delight in them. I must mention the choir’s amazing anthem at Mattins this morning beautifully expressed that yearning of the heart to be in God’s presence.

The tax-collector is a modern day meme for those who are desperate for release. Those of us who have suffered an Adverse Childhood Experience and who look to forms of release in substance abuse to deaden our pain draws us further away from our true calling and fulfilment. Only yearning for God’s mercy can be the key that unlocks our potential.

The chaplains at the prison up the road say the inmates are so open to talk about Jesus because they’ve got nothing left to save them. Jesus really does release them from bondage into a new life and a future. So how do we nurture humility and a yearning for God’s salvation in our hearts? It may feel like praying by rote, but saying the Jesus prayer, sometimes with a rosary, puts our hearts in a position of humbly seeking God:

‘Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the Most High God, have mercy

on me a sinner.’

‘Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the Most High God, have mercy

on me a sinner.’

‘Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the Most High God, have mercy

on me a sinner.’

Over and over again, we need to remind ourselves of our sin. As the apostle John says, ‘If we claim to be without sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.’ (1 Jn 1:8) We need to speak the truth of our desperate need for Jesus into our hearts so that we believe and live by that truth.

All those who humble themselves will be exalted. So let us humbly come before God now in our prayers. Before we’re led in our intercessions, let’s bow not just our heads before God, but let’s bow our hearts before his presence also. Lord god, forgive us for all that contributes towards us feeling entitled, and we humbly seek your mercy and grace.

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

Amen.