Sermon: Prayer and Parties
Preached on 6th June 2009
by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
Sermon for the Festival of the Friends of Durham Cathedral
At the turn of the 2nd century AD, the Roman satirist Juvenal famously declared that whereas the people once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, ‘they now meddle no more and long eagerly for just two things, bread and circuses'. He was lamenting a society's loss of hard-won ownership of their own institutions, for they had become addicted to the pursuit of food and pleasure, cravings the increasingly powerful emperors exploited to their own ends. I am not the first to wonder whether the collapse of common purpose, virtue and shared values in our society is an ominous sign that we are at risk of following Rome into decline and fall. So much for the solemn part of this sermon. But what if we gave ‘bread and circuses' a more positive spin, as if to say, there are things staples that we need to survive, and pleasures to enjoy and enrich life. A Chinese proverb says that if you have two pence left in the world, buy a loaf of bread with one and a lily with the other. I know a bishop who describes Christianity as ‘prayer and parties'. Perhaps this Friends' festival is just that - prayer and partying.
You'd expect me to begin with the prayer, so let's start with partying. What are the ingredients of a good party? An occasion to celebrate, food and drink, a pleasant environment, music, all of which we are enjoying today. But above all, conviviality, good company, friendship. To be together as friends is what this festival day is about. It's a happy thing that we are holding this particular party on the Eve of Trinity Sunday, because tomorrow's feast celebrates the very nature of God - God as he is in himself, three Persons in perfect community, perfect friendship, perfect love. Theologians used to talk about the Trinity as a social God for whom, in whom, being in relationship is fundamental. That is to say, God is not only in relationship with the world he has made and the people he cares for; he is relationship in himself. St John says in tonight's reading that ‘God is love'. He means not simply that he loves the world and gives himself for it but that love is the essence of what he is. Mother Julian of Norwich says that love is his meaning. The friendship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the highest expression of love there is.
What has this got to do with parties? Simply this: a good party means forging true community, deepening relationships, celebrating friendship. Whenever we do this, we reflect of the image of God within us. We are social beings because God is. The life of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit, is eternal divine sociability, generosity, self-giving and love among and between and within the three Persons. And if ‘love is his meaning', then it must be our meaning too, not simply in how we live and behave, but how we are, in ourselves, with one another, those God gives to us in friendship and church, society and home. ‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God.' By being here today as a society of friends, Cathedral Friends, one another's friends, we are being Trinitarian, honouring the love that comes from God, that is God. This is why it is good to be here partying.
What about praying? Well, if partying draws us closer into relationship with one another, praying draws us closer into relationship with God, makes us his friends. And this too is an aspect of how we enter into and begin to reflect the life of God the Holy Trinity. For if the Trinity is the essence of what love is, both in itself and as it reaches out to creation, then not to acknowledge this love, not to respond to it, not to give to it all that we can summon of love is to deny what is at the very heart of existence. The most glorious mystery of the universe is the love of its Creator and Redeemer. To be fully alive is to open ourselves up to him, say ‘yes' to it like a sunflower turning towards and opening itself up to the source of its light and warmth and life.
This is what ‘prayer' is. It's to know our place in the universe, ‘the dignity of creaturehood' as Bishop Michael Ramsey called it, meaning the way we are ennobled when we know what is due to our Creator and we freely, gladly, offer it. We know that the essence of prayer is not asking, not confessing, not lamenting, not even thanking, but adoring, celebrating, praising, loving. This office of evensong began with words from the Psalms: ‘O Lord, open thou our lips: and our mouth shall show forth thy praise'. Worship is worthship, honouring the majestic One who is worth everything we can bring him. This offering of our life is an act of purest love. It gives us our true bearings, the sense of direction that enables us to navigate safely and negotiate the risks and hazards of life not out of fear but out of a God-given courageous love and hope.
So: parties mean celebrating friendship with one another, and prayer means celebrating our friendship with God. They belong inseparably together, for they are the same Trinitarian truth about who God is and who we are. ‘Let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.' And what group of people is better placed to model this God-given way of living than us who bear the privileged name of ‘Friends'? Love is his meaning. Love is our meaning. Love is what matters most: the love within the Holy Trinity that is shed abroad in our hearts and in the world. Prayer and parties: we cannot do without them.
1 John 4.7-end