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Liberating Prayer – a reflection for Passion Sunday 2020 (5th Sunday in Lent, 29th March)

Based on the Lectionary Gospel Reading: John 11:1-45

The death of Lazarus is one of the great stories of the bible. It touches on such great themes as the companionship of friends, the grief of a family, encountering death, resurrection and prayer. This reflection will look at prayer, and in particular – intercession.

In John’s gospel this story is the prelude to the first Palm Sunday. It really begins in John chapter 10 verse 39, and ends at chapter 12 verse 10. Jesus is staying at the place of his baptism (Bethany-over-the-Jordan; see John 1:28) when he gets news of the illness of Lazarus. It concludes with both Jesus and Lazarus threatened with death on the evening before he goes to the Temple in Jerusalem.

He stays too long in Bethany-over-the-Jordan for Martha. When Jesus approaches their village of Bethany (a different Bethany), Martha greets him as he finishes the long climb out the desert to the edge of the Mount of Olives. We can hear the pain and blame in her greeting: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.

Who could blame her? Martha and her sister Mary were distraught. Their brother was gone. An uncalled disaster had fallen on them. Their world had been changed beyond recognition and the one person who could have done something about it was absent.

Or putting it another way: God, I have prayed for the one I love and you haven’t done anything.

It’s so natural isn’t it? Your child is ill; you’re worried about a friend who lives abroad; you are frightened because an elderly relative is becoming more and more fragile and it is the most natural form of intercession: God, please do something!

Sometimes we leave out the ‘please’. It is so obvious that if we were in God’s place we would choose to heal, reconcile, change what we are not coping with. It was so obvious to Martha what Jesus should have done. But on that Sabbath day in Bethany-under-the Mount-of Olives, Jesus would not be told. He saw more in this than a simple case of healing – as he climbed out of the desert – he was preparing for a demonstration of God’s glory, which could mean anything. But what it would always be is an opening of the heart of God.

Martha interceded for her brother. All she wanted was for Jesus to turn round a deteriorating situation. For her intercession was telling God what she wanted and expecting results. Jesus was working for a different result.

It’s so natural isn’t it? I have done it and I know many other people who pray do it. We justly simply cry out to God: HELP! PLEASE! NOW! Intense, frantic intercession.

In this story Jesus attempts to re-shape Martha and Mary’s relationship with God. But that is not possible if they think they know best. They are trying to keep control of the situation. They try to alleviate the disturbance by keeping a grip on what’s happening and call on God as back-up. Jesus calls them to another way of intercession.

At no point was Jesus absent and in no sense was Jesus insensitive. It is Mary who draws this from him. She says the same as Martha but her tears speak louder. And Jesus cannot hold back his own grief. Martha seems to have wanted Jesus just to do what she wanted and then go on his way. Mary is different. She sees into the heart of the Lord and the day ends with Jesus in their home with Mary anointing the feet of Jesus as a final gift of human love.

So what might this story of Lazarus tells us about intercession? Perhaps it is this:

  • We come before God with others on our mind and heart.
  • We know that God recognises our feelings.
  • We try to resist the temptation to tell God what to do.
  • We seek the humility to submit to the possibilities that only God can offer.
  • We realise that we don’t have to say a lot – WE ARE NEVER ALONE.
God is love: and he, enfolding
all the world in one embrace,
with unfailing grasp is holding
every child of every race.
And when human hearts are breaking
under sorrow’s iron rod,
then they find the selfsame aching
deep within the heart of God.

by Timothy Rees (Singing the Faith 103)

John Rackley, March 2020

18th March – A Prayer for Today

We don’t miss the vaper trails that, on a clear day,
appear to scar the sky
but we miss, so much, friends and family far away.

We find ourselves living with a strange anomaly:
in a world of increasing separation
we share a common fear
and must overcome together.

Lord,
grant to those with power and influence
the wisdom to do what is right
and what is best
for all humanity.

Michael Mays

27th March – A Prayer for Today

Last night at 8pm
we clapped and cheered the NHS.

Even on a village street
you felt the unity.

We are in this together
and will come through this together.

Lord,
may this sense of unity
and thankfulness
help us to shape our future.

Michael Mays

26th March – Prayer for Today

Lord of us all,

We hold in our minds all those who have nowhere to call home.
In a world where borders are closed
we think of those without status:
without papers, without resources
(beyond the cash they carry).

We try to think-through the implications
for all who live on the fringes,
trapped in the shadowlands of unregulated work
and without the security of a National Insurance number.

And, in shame, we force to mind
those who despair, stranded on the beaches,
or consigned to the camps,
lost from sight as we are consumed
by our present needs
(for we can no longer fill our supermarket trolleys).

Lord, open our hearts;
that we may do our part
to make generosity, tolerance and fairness
the pillars on which our society is made new.
And may the bedrock be love.

Michael Mays

25th March – Collect for the Annunciation

We beseech thee, O Lord,
pour your grace into our hearts;
that, as we have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ
by the message of an angel,
so by his cross and passion
we may be brought unto the glory of his resurrection;
through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Feast of the Annunciation

Antonello da Massina, Virgin Annunciate, Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo, Sicily, 1476

Antonello da Massina, Virgin Annunciate, Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo, Sicily, 1476

The 25th March is one of those dates when we are reminded of the rhythm of the church year, a ceaseless song that spans some two thousand years. Today is the Feast of the Annunciation (it’s exactly nine months before Christmas!).

On this day we call to mind the encounter between the Virgin Mary and God’s messenger, who comes with startling news. This news comes down to us in Luke’s Gospel (1:26-38). His beautiful phrasing is reflected in the great paintings of the Renaissance, each offering a carefully choreographed scene, with a perfectly poised young woman accepting, demurely and faithfully, this biology-confounding news. The setting of such scenes, usually an enclosed garden (an allusion to her chaste status) with prominent lilies (her purity) can make the depictions seem staged and formulaic. Not so The Annunciation by Antonello da Messina.

The art history text books concentrate of Antonello’s place in the development of oil painting, as opposed to tempera or fresco painting – the go-to methods in Fifteenth Century Italy, but for me it’s this painting that marks him out.

It is a small painting, probably intended for private reflection. The Virgin is sat at a table, she is young, beautiful even, but not other-worldly. Her eyes are averted, her mouth, which is slightly twisted in apprehension, is tightly closed, her left hand draws her veil together. She is hearing words she can scarcely believe and her right hand hovers, for in this moment she is irresolute: does she accept this momentous news; or does she push it away?

It takes a few minutes for us to make sense of this painting, until we grasp that we face her just as the angel does, and the small gestures of confusion and doubt are for us to behold. So, look and see before you a young woman troubled, fearful. In this moment her world changes. And so, does ours.

Michael Mays

24th March – A Prayer for Today

The future has always been unknown
but this feels so different, Lord.

The familiar and well-trodden paths of yesterday
have all but disappeared;
we find ourselves on insecure ground.

As we face the unknown
remind us that we are known to you.
as we brace ourselves for the unforeseen
help us to see the need all around us.
And when we feel ourselves nudged towards hopelessness
by unremitting bad news,
remind us that our hope is in you –
who lived and loved courageously,
and restores what is broken.

Michael Mays

23rd March 2020 – A Prayer for Today

Today’s lesson
is on the mathematics of contagion.
It’s applied maths,
for we all must learn to add,
not multiply.

Lord, we pray
for those who must calculate:
how to spend the remaining cash,
where to take the kids to let off steam
and when each child might use the family computer
for their homework.

Michael Mays

Mothering Sunday

Yesterday a neighbour called by.
“We’re putting together a WhatsApp group
to help each other out.”

Then a note dropped through the door
offering help to those self-isolating or alone.

Today is Mothering Sunday,
a day for mothers
and more besides.

Mothering is about supporting,
nurturing, encouraging
and unconditional love.

Lord, may this be us.

Michael Mays

Saturday Shopping

Saturday Shopping

When you’re buying fence posts
and trellis panels
it’s easy to keep your personal space
in the check-out queue.

Not so for the girl on the till,
she looks exhausted.
“We’re working 24 hours here,
to restock the shelves.”

I pay.
She sprays her red-raw hands.
“Stay safe,” she says.
“You too.”

You too.

On leaving the store

Dear God!
Today the Food Bank trolley
Is virtually empty.
Lord, help us.

Michael Mays