Sunday, 5 February 2012

Third Sunday before Lent: That hunted feeling...

“Simon and his companions hunted for Jesus…”

I don’t know what your reaction was when you heard those words from our Gospel this morning, but mine was a feeling of tremendous sympathy. There’s something very poignant about this story. Jesus has begun his ministry in a whirlwind of activity in Capernaum. It all starts with Simon Peter’s mother in law, laid up with a fever. Jesus heals her, lifting her up not just physically but spiritually and emotionally too, giving her back her life. It’s a very personal favour, helping out a friend. But of course, everyone else gets to hear of it, and Jesus is besieged. By evening “The whole city was gathered around the door” says Mark. That has to be an exaggeration, but that’s how it feels. In Jesus’ world, what help was there for those who were sick or troubled? Precious little. Life was precarious, especially for those who were poor to start with. When word got out that here was a healer who could raise a woman from her sick bed just like that, no wonder people flocked to Jesus. And he responded. “He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.”

Finally, when the last patient went away healed, Jesus could rest. And then, in the early morning, we are told, while it was still dark, he crept out of the town to find some space to pray, some time to be with God. It was still dark, and no one saw him go. But as soon as dawn came, so did the next wave of sick people wanting his help. The disciples didn’t know what to do, but they knew that Jesus would. They were riding high on a wave of excitement. So out they go, and they hunt him down. The Greek word Mark uses is the same one you would use of hunting an animal, pursuing it until you catch and kill it. They don’t just look for him; they hunt for him, without any apparent thought for what his needs might be. And when they find him they tell him everyone is searching for you…” Who is this “everyone”? Didn’t he have the “whole city” at his door the day before? Didn’t he work his way through every disease this town could throw at him then? Where have these people come from?

The fact is that human need was endless then, just as it is now. Anyone who works in any sort of public service – teachers, medical staff, social workers, emergency services - will know that. The job is never done. You can help one person, but there will be another and another and another coming along behind them. If you do something well, you can be sure that you will be expected to repeat the miracle, and do it better, and faster, and probably for less money next time…If you fail, it won’t escape attention. Everyone has an opinion on what you are doing. We’ve all been to school, so we think we are all experts on education. We’ve all been ill, so we know how the NHS should be run. We feel free to sit on the side lines, to criticise and demand. Today is Education Sunday, a day when we are asked especially to pray for those who work in that particular part of our public service – if you are a teacher or work in a school, thank you for all you do. We do know how hard it can sometimes be.

Those in other jobs are also hounded by the demands of work, of course, especially in the current financial climate. There is always pressure to do more with less, to work ever faster and smarter. It is easy to find yourself looking constantly over your shoulder, having to stay ahead of the competition all the time.  And whatever we are doing, if we have a conscience we want to be doing it well, not letting others down, working with integrity.

For those who have no work the pressures can be just as bad; despite what the tabloid press says, life on benefits, for the vast majority of people, is extremely tough. It can be frightening, humiliating and depressing.
And working or not, any of us can find ourselves beset with family struggles, health problems and a host of other worries which drive us to despair.

Sometimes we all feel hounded by our responsibilities, hunted down.  A pack of demands bays at our heels, and we don’t know where to turn to get away from them. All we want to do is sit and rest for a while. And that is where we find Jesus at this very human moment, hunted down by people who want one more healing, one more word of advice, just a minute of his time…

We could just stop there, and this story would have given us something precious to take away. Sometimes it is enough simply to recognise that Jesus has been where we are. We can see his footprints in our own human lives. But if we read on we discover that as well as sharing our exhaustion, Jesus’ example can also help us to deal with it, because somehow, from somewhere, he finds the strength not only to continue with his work, but also to broaden it. “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns,” he says “so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”  When I hear that response I think to myself, “Whatever Jesus was on, I need some of it too…!”

The clue, I think, is in what Jesus is doing when he is discovered by Simon. He hasn’t got up in the early morning to worry, or to plan, or to get some other jobs out of the way. He has got up in the morning to pray. It is prayer which is the key to the way he copes with pressure. That probably doesn’t sound very exciting or revolutionary, but it is true.

My experience is that churchgoers often have a very ambivalent attitude to prayer. Many people feel it is something they ought to do – like going to the gym or cutting down on cakes – but somehow they don’t get around to it. Praying at services is one thing, or in desperate situations, but regular prayer is really for the professionals – “say one for me, vicar!” People are often rather coy about prayer, as if it is an odd thing to do. And does it really matter that much? Will it really make such a difference?

According to Jesus, and looking at his example, yes, it will. Not because it will magically solve our problems, but because it will help us to see them in a new light, to set them in a new context. When we are feeling hunted, in particular, it seems to me that prayer can do two things which nothing else quite achieves.

Firstly it reminds us, quite simply, that God is there. When Jesus prays he re-discovers again and again that he doesn’t have to fight singlehanded against the powers of darkness. He gives himself permission to need help, and to ask for that help. When we pray we do the same, and that’s tremendously liberating. I don’t have to save the world. I don’t have to have all the answers. I don’t have to know what to do. I can acknowledge my limits with great gratitude and relief.  Prayer helps us to cut ourselves some slack. Our hands can only hold so much – that’s how it should be – so we put ourselves, and those things which are hounding us, into the hands of a God who has no limits.

The second thing that happens when Jesus prays is that he draws on the strength of a whole community of faith. I say that because at this time the normal practice of prayer, which I am sure Jesus followed, was to pray seven times a day, using words from the Bible, Psalms and set prayers. Of course people also simply poured out their hearts to God in extemporary prayer too, but the backbone of private devotion were these common prayers that were laid down and shared. Christians carried on with that pattern, and they still do. In monasteries there is a daily round of prayer, starting with Matins in the early hours and going through to Compline, which finished – completed - the day’s prayer.

You don’t have to be a monk or nun to pray in this way, though, and there are countless simplified and shortened versions of these daily forms of prayer around. I’ve included some in the leaflets on prayer on the table at the front.  So long as whatever you do suits you, becomes familiar - and you don’t beat yourself up if you don’t always stick to it - it will do fine.  Praying this way - leaning on an inheritance of faith and using words that reflect the struggles and the wisdom of those who have gone before you – reminds you that you aren’t ploughing a lonely furrow. You are slipping into a tide of prayer, like a river which flows on taking you with it. It isn’t the only way of praying – prayer can take many forms – but it is particularly valuable in those hunted moments, when you have nothing left of yourself to give.

If you have been watching the Sunday evening drama “Call the Midwife” you’ll have seen this sort of prayer in action. The programme is about a young and not particularly religiously minded midwife in the 1950’s who finds herself, more or less by accident, working in a nursing order of Anglican nuns in the slums of the East End of London. Time and again she comes to the end of her tether, weighed down by the pain and squalor she encounters. How can these nuns have endured it for decades, delivering babies through the Blitz, facing the suffering around them day after day? The answer gradually becomes clear to her. Punctuating each day, there is prayer, come what may. If they can gather together they do, but if not they pray alone, in the words they know their sisters in the convent are also using. It is an anchor that holds them, a context into which to put all the burdens of the day, a reminder that, whatever has happened, God is still there, and so are others.

In prayer we tell ourselves the truth; that we are not alone, that it isn’t all down to us. When the hounds of overwork, unrealistic expectation, failure or fear have hunted us down and got us cornered, alone and afraid, it is prayer that holds us steady, and prayer that will put us back on our feet again.
“Call The Midwife: A True Story Of The East End In The 1950s” by Jennifer Worth.

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