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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr David's sermon

12th September 2004

Fr David Shepherd

Trinity XIV

'Say a prayer for me', people will often say to us. As Christian people and especially as a Christian Church people expect us to do that, whether for themselves or for others. It is one thing we can all do. It is one of the distinctive marks of the Church that we pray. Such seemingly flippant, almost superstitious requests mask a great deal of raw human need and a searching for God.

Given what I've just said, it is good to think about what we are doing when we pray, making intercession for people. To help us do that I'd like to share a quote from our Archbishop, Rowan Williams. It goes like this.

'Intercession acknowledges the reality of the needs of others and one's own relative powerlessness in respect of their future'. (Rowan Williams On Christian Theology p12)

Much of the time we live our lives under the illusion that we are in charge and every thing is OK and then something happens to remind us that we are not and it is not. The writer Margaret Drabble said in an interview, how in growing older she has come to realise the falsehood of her youthful belief that life would become easier. It didn't.

In the large-scale evil events of our world, or simply in the gradual self-discoveries of maturation we are confronted with stark realities. It is then that we human beings instinctively turn to prayer. Rowan Williams suggests how we might approach that prayer.

  1. An acknowledgement of the reality of the needs of others. It has been said that human beings can't bear too much reality. And sometimes the Church has sought to down play the reality of other's needs. Denis Potter said that he abandoned the practice of Christian faith because it prevented him from the full dramatic exploration of suffering. The reason behind this is that we can't take it in. All suffering is personal and we can't relate to everyone. Nevertheless in our intercession we can seek to bring the reality of others needs to God. To do this our prayer needs to be informed and empathetic. But even though we can never know the full reality of the needs of others we know that God does. Herein lies the true realism of intercession, telling the God who already knows, how it is. The cross of Christ is a powerful symbol of that reality, of God sharing in our suffering and redeeming it.
  2. An acknowledgement of one's own relative powerlessness in respect of their future. Being confronted by the reality of human need can make us feel helpless. We want to do something, but often we feel we can't. And if we are known to be Christian people of prayer, we will have experienced the sense of helpless that comes with the unrealistic expectations that others may have of us that we might somehow be able to effect a miracle through our prayer, to bring about a different future. We should note Rowan Williams use of the word 'relative' here. Human beings do have the power to make a difference, through political choices, through modern medicine. At a personal level practical acts of kindness and the gift of being present with another are important. Nor should we underestimate the power of prayer or the possibility of miracle. But it still remains the case that we are in the end relatively powerless to determine the future of others or of ourselves. We are after all mortal. So when we pray we do so in the full acknowledgement of our powerlessness, of our weakness and of our dependency on God. And when we pray we do so, through Christ in who the all-powerful Father shared our weakness, in the Holy Spirit who teaches that our strength lies in weakness.

As we pray in this service we can do so with realism because Christ will bear it. We can do so acknowledging our powerlessness because God in Christ has shared our weakness. We can hand it over to him knowing that through his Spirit he will strengthen us. We can do so in hope because through the Resurrection we are promised an eternal future.


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