(Sermon preached at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Quebec City)
Thank you for inviting me to preach this morning, in this first Anglican cathedral to be built outside the British Isles.
I remember when I was back in England, having a conversation with a young woman who was just about to take up a position as head teacher in a large school. She would have an annual budget of several million pounds and she would be managing 50 or so people as well as being responsible for the safety, wellbeing and education of more than a thousand children.
As it happened she was also a Christian and attended the next door parish which was a large conservative evangelical church. It was well known for its conservative stance about the role and ministry of women, interpreting 1 Timothy 2:12 to mean that women should not be allowed to teach men in church. For this reason they opposed women as priests as senior leaders.
As I talked with her I couldn’t understand how she connected her new role as a highly important leader in a school with her church where women were, in my eyes, discriminated against. “How do you worship in a church which does not allow women as leaders?” I asked. “Easy,” she replied – ” the men are just wrong – but I will also tell you why I go there,” she added. “I go there because when they pray, they pray as if they believe that God might actually do something.”
Those words struck me hard. How many churches have I been to, and even been a priest for, where I know that we have prayed for world peace, for victims of war and disaster, and for long lists of people who are sick in need – and how much have any of us seriously believed that God would change the course of world events. We prayed for peace in war zones, but it was more like wishful thinking, a hope that things might be different. Few, if any of us thought that God might actually do something, might actually intervene that week on Monday morning to make the wars cease. Few of us thought that Amy Scroggins – or whomever we were praying for on Sunday morning, would wake up on Monday with her chronic arthritis miraculously cured.
This morning’s New Testament reading challenges us with that very same question. Does God ever answer prayers and actually do anything to heal people? In the story the centurion asks the church to pray for his slave – he sent some Jewish elders to Jesus, and in the story Jesus hears the petition of the elders and is prepared to go to centurion himself. In the end the child slave is miraculously cured from a distance.
Now I am not naive, and I have almost thirty years of ministry behind me. In my first year as a deacon I was called to the hospital bedside to be with a family whose young 6 year old daughter was dying with a very invasive cancer. The family were angry, frightened, exhausted, and felt as if their insides were being ripped out. As for prayer, they had tried it – they had bargained with God and offered everything in exchange for this life. They would have walked barefoot on a pilgrimage around the entire world and given away all their possessions if only their daughter could live. They had prayed their prayers with an intensity and a passion that few of us ever approach. And yet – and yet their daughter was now inevitably dying. God had not answered their prayers, God had done nothing – belief in God was for them also dying on that hospital bed with their daughter.
So when I went several years later to the Alpha Course training session at Holy Trinity Brompton, in London, I was both pleased and skeptical when I learned that Nicky Gumbel – the priest there, would be giving a demonstration Alpha talk entitled ‘does God heal today’ . I was ready to criticise a naive faith which implied either that those parents had not prayed hard enough, or any glib comment which said that God loved that child so much that God wanted the child in heaven with the Angels. And so I waited.
Nicky Gumbel’s presentation of the Alpha Course was not naive – it was thoughtful, sorrowful, realistic, hopeful and faithful. Like me he, too, had sat by bedsides with parents who were watching their children die. Like me he had prayed with those parents – real prayers, prayers offered with tears of blood – and like me and countless others he had walked away and nothing had happened. God had not healed, there was no miracle. Like me he was not satisfied with cruel easy answers. So how could he answer that question ‘ Does God heal today?”
He said many things and made many arguments. There was the clear evidence of Scripture that people had believed what they saw with their own eyes – that Jesus was a mighty leader who went around healing people. That people came to him and were indeed healed. There was the clear evidence of scripture that Jesus empowered his disciples and followers to cast out demons and heal people in his name, that after the feast of Pentecost the apostles seemed to share that gift. There was the clear evidence of the New Testament that the early church expected gifts of healing to happen. It was a part of the early church’s faith.
And then there was the clear evidence of tradition. There has never been a time or a place or a Christian Church which has not prayed to God for people who are sick. High Church, Low Church, East and West, Radical or conservative – every church community in all places and at all times has prayed for the sick. It would be a very strange church indeed which said that it no longer believed in prayer.
And then there was the confusing evidence of our own experience. The people we have prayed for who have not been cured, the children who have died, the apparent silence from God – and alongside all of that the stories of people who have been healed. The miracles of healing at St Anne de Beaupre, at the tomb of St Andre, at Lourdes in France – the spectacular and at times offensively financial miracles of healing at the hands of tele-evangelists.
And then there is our own experience – the man on pilgrimage in the Holy Land whose prostate problem meant he spent days wanting to use the washroom, who confession I heard, whose hands I anointed and with whom I prayed at the site of the Crucifixion in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – and who wrote to tell me that the pain and discomfort had gone. The women with osteoporosis of the spine who was going to have an operation who wrote to tell me that the operation was being cancelled because her spine had sorted itself out. The man with cancer who had only two months to live and who lived for another two years. As Nicky Gumbel said, “even if only one person in a thousand is healed I will pray with a thousand for the sake of that one, and I will share the sadness and the feeling of abandonment of the 999.”
When my own mother was taken suddenly ill with a form of Leukemia we added her name to the prayer list in my church and in her home church where she was a regular attendee. Good Christians prayed for her – that she would be healed. After three weeks the doctors told her there was nothing more that they could do for her. After six weeks she died. It was as if God had ignored our prayers.
But as I sat in the courtyard of the hospice where mum died – I wondered. Her death had been painless and quick. She had died with her family around her, just 45 minutes before she died I had given her the last rites, absolved her and anointed her and told her that she could go. – and she had gone. And I remember my mother telling me that she prayed every night that when she died she would be taken quickly, that she was frightened of dementia and losing control of herself – that she did not want to live on and on in a frightening world of mental confusion as her own mother had done for more than ten years. God is good – and my mother’s prayer had been answered.
Which brings me to what I found as I read and prayed about today’s Gospel passage, summed up in two words : earnestly and amazed.
The elders of the synagogue come to Jesus and they appeal to him earnestly. My friends, I believe we must never cease to pray to God earnestly for what we earnestly desire. God does not need protecting from our prayers. I believe we must listen to our hearts and our prayers must burn with the same intensity and passion of our feelings within us. If we truly want peace in Iraq and Syria then we must pray for it earnestly – we must not be afraid of praying the prayer that we long for peace, that our hearts are weighed down with waiting, that we do not understand why God seems not to act, that we are heart-broken as we see thousands of refugees and we just don’t know what to do any more. I believe we must tell God how it is for us with all the passion and strength we can muster – and yes, I believe that although we must not presume to tell God how to act – it is perfectly right to ask God to ask – even so Come Lord Jesus – Come quickly…….
This means that we pray for X and Y and Z on the prayer list – we should not just be listing names, we will need to ask our own consciences, our own hearts: do we actually care about these people at all – are our prayers truly in earnest. I have a bit of a liturgical hobby horse that we need to stop talking to each other about God in our prayers and in our hymns and in our liturgies, and we need to learn how to talk and sing directly to God once more. I would personally much rather sing “Praise my soul the King of heaven, at your feet our tribute bring” than “at his feet thy tribute bring”. I would rather say: God we pray for the sick than let us pray for the sick. And we need not to be afraid to ask God fully for what we truly desire. Which parent among you would want your child to stop talking to you honestly about what they are feeling because they think you cannot deliver – and which parent among you would not do the very best you can for your children; even if you cannot or should not deliver what they ask for?
And the other word is amazed. Jesus was amazed – even Jesus himself was amazed at the centurion because of his faith. The Centurion’s faith is strange. It is almost matter of fact. A simple and yet clear acceptance that Jesus has both the authority and the power to act or not – and that it is up to Jesus what to do – whether to come or go, whether to heal or not. Such a simple faith which truly puts all we care for and all we love into God’s hands and says to God “I trust you so much, that whatever you do will be all right even if right now I do not understand, even if right now my heart is breaking” – that is indeed amazing.
And so I fully understand why those who have prayed and have been healed can rejoice in their faith. I fully understand why the man who no longer has to rush to the washroom ten times a day and night, and why the woman whose back no longer hurts, can daily praise God and give God thanks. I understand how I can look back at my own mother’s death and see the hand of God and give thanks to God for dealing with her and us so graciously.
But for the parents who prayed and watched their child die and who still have faith that God is good, and that all is well, and all shall be well, and that all manner of thing shall be well – well, as Jesus knew – that is amazing.