Sunday, April 1, 2012

When's a house of prayer not a house of prayer?

My house shall be a house of prayer.
But you have made it a den of robbers.

When we came up with things that were special about Highbury worship and prayer figured large. 

Relevant – challenging

Peaceful – praying – praying church

Down to earth - Prepared to problem share

Good singing – teaching focus on word of God

A place to learn – Christ centred

This is for us what makes Highbury special.  This is for us what is so important about our worship.  And it is something worth sharing.  It is something special.

But beware.  Even the most special of places can become tarnished.

As Luke tells the story of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem on a donkey to the acclaim of the crowds he tells of that moment known to all who make the journey from Bethany and the Mount of Olives into the city of Jersualem when he catches sight of the temple.  That is the place that is so special in the whole story of the Jewish people.  That place of the presence of God.

It is nothing less than a house of prayer.

Yet as he rounded that bend, came near and saw the city with the temple towering over it in all its speldour, Jesus wept over it, saying,

“If you, even you, had only recognised on this day the things that make for peace!  But now they are hidden from your eyes!

This was not the age old temple of great Jewish tradition.  It was a newly re-built temple that had yet to be finally completed.  It had taken a massive workforce, paid a pittance, and had to be funded by an extortionate taxation system and coinage system that had filled the outer courts of the temple with money-changers that were part of a system that had done so much to destroy all that should have been so special about that place.

When he entered the temple, he began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said,

It is written
My house shall be a house of prayer;
But you have made it a den of robbers.

This Palm Sunday I want to reflect on what it is that can so destroy a house of prayer, and what it is that makes prayer come alive.  In doing that, I feel there is something for us to take to heart collectively here at Highbury and individually in the hearts of each one of us.

As Holy Week unfolds Luke tells of the way Jesus is drawn back, day after day to the temple.  There it is the powers that be among the Herodian hierarchy that take issue with him time and again.

Jesus singles out the scribes, those who have responsibility for copying out documents of state, the scriptures, comments on the scriptures.  Because they have control of the production of written documents these are the ones who have power in their hands.  And power corrupts.  Think of the power News International has had in its stranglehold of the news media and the way that power has corrupted.

In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

He looks up and finds himself standing by the treasury where what Luke describes as ‘rich people’ – the ones who hold power in the city – make a show of putting their gifts into the treasury.

Then he sees it.  In front of his very eyes he sees how they devour the widows’ houses.  The poverty stricken widow who has but two coins to her name is required to put everthing she has.

This injustice angers Jesus – this amounts to devouring widows’ houses.

Truly, I tell you, with anger in his voice, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.

This is the first reflection on prayer.  The mistake the scribes made was to separate out their prayers and their worship from what they did with their lives.  Splendid prayers are no good if not lived out from day to day, from hour to hour, from minute to minute.

It is so easy for fine worship to disguise oppression and injustice.  “God is spirit,” Jesus had said to the woman of Samaria as they sat by the well, “and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”

For a house of prayer truly to be a house of prayer there must be prayer, but prayer must spring from the depths of our heart, prayer must issue in the way we lead our lives and prayer must spring from the very lives we lead.

As Michel Quoist, the worker priest of the middle years of the last century put it

If we knew how to listen to God, if we knew how to look around us,
Our whole life would become prayer.
For it unfolds under God’s eyes and no part of it must be
Lived without being freely offered to him.
… Words are only a means.
However, the silent prayer which has moved beyond words
Must always spring from everyday life,
For everyday life is the raw material of prayer.

My Father’s house will be called a house of prayer
When prayer is lived.

Jesus has the capacity to read the signs of the times.  He knows that such a system, rotten as it is to the core, cannot survive.  He speaks of the destruction that will befall the very temple itself.  Earth shattering events will happen within the lifetime of that generation.  How true his words came to be as the temple itself was destroyed 40 years later.

When first I studied the gospels in the late 60’s and early 70’s I used to think 40 years an incredibly long period of time.  I now realise how short a period it actually is.  It’s a bit like EF Schumacher in his book Small is Beautiful writing just 40 years ago telling us that endless growth and the rush towards ever bigger institutions was not sustainable.  The system would collapse … and 40 years on we can see so much of his analysis coming to pass.

Then we reach the next reflection on prayer.

When things are falling apart and the system is itself destroyed for us to be true to the house of prayer that is so special to us we must in Jesus words

Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’

In difficult times prayer is of vital importance – it is the life-blood we need. 

My Father’s house will be called a house of prayer
When prayer is resolute

That next moment of prayer in this Holy Week comes on the Thursday.  And it happens at a particular moment.  As Jesus gathers his closest friends around him and shares in the Passover.  Jonathan Sacks in Thought for the Day on Thursday spoke about Passover.  Quintessentially, it is a family festival.  More than that it is a family festival where the youngest child in the family takes centre stage and is the one to ask of the senior the key questions that speak of freedom.

He spoke of it as a family gathering.  For Jesus this was his family.  Luke speaks of Jesus ‘giving thanks’ before the first cup, giving thanks before breaking the bread, and doing the same with the cup after the meal.

For us ‘church’ is family.  And breaking the bread, sharing the cup is one of those moments when as ‘family’ we gather together, with our youngest ones often coming back to join us.

It’s all very well saying that prayer is something that permeates the whole of life.  If we don’t set aside times when our prayer and our worship finds its focus in the brokenness of the Christ who comes alongside us in all our suffering, then we are in danger of losing that spark of prayer.  Jesus treasured that Passover and in those words instituted that communion which we too can share this evening with the choir, and on Maundy  Thursday in the most special of ways.

My Father’s house will be called a house of prayer
When prayer is shared

Then comes that most personal of moments as this week unfolds.  When Jesus came out and, as was his custom, went to the Mount of Olives.  And there he enjoined his closest friends to pray.  And he too prayed.

For them it was too much.  They couldn’t keep awake even for an hour.

And for Jesus this was the point of deep down despair and yet through the agonizing honesty of his praying, also the moment that releases for him the strength of God in all his unseen power and love.

Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ [[ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.]]

Whatever you make of angels, that is one of those special moments in the story of Holy Week.  It is when he is at his lowest that he opens his heart to God his father, and bares his soul.  And it is at this moment that a strength from beyond himself is let loose in his soul.  An angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength.

My Father’s House will  be called a house of prayer
When prayer is personal

This place is special for us.

It is for us in so many ways, a house of prayer.

But for this truly to be a house of prayer

We need to be people whose lives are lived and shaped by the prayer that springs from the heart.  The most heavenly of inspiring services is of no earthly use unless the prayers we share are lived out in the lives we lead.

For this truly to be a house of prayer
We need to be people who keep alert in the face of the world and its troubles, seeking in prayer that strength to enable us to hold fast in our commitment to Christ Jesus our Lord, no matter what may befall in that troubled and troubling world.

For this truly to be a house of prayer

We need to be people who come together as Christ’s family honouring most of all the youngest among us and as we break bread and take the cup we need to remember that Christ is with us at the point of our deepest suffering and we can truly give thanks.

For this truly to be a house of prayer

We need to recognise that there is nothing that prevents us from succumbing to the darkest depths … but in those depths as we cry out to God there will  be a strength from beyond ourselves as the angels come and minister to us.

Come on Maundy Thursday and share as church family together.

Come on Good Friday and at the foot of the cross, reflect on the presence of Christ with us, walk with us in silent prayer through the town and in the peace of St Mary’s hear again the words of Jesus from the cross.

And then come the day, join us to celebrate the victory of Christ in resurrection glory, a victory we all may share.

No comments:

So much to pass on at Highbury

If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light