Sunday, 20 September 2009

Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven

Preacher: Sue
Readings: Luke 11:1-13, Luke 4:16-21

Today we’re continuing our series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer, looking at “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven”. Lesley began last week with “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. I’m still reeling from her challenge that to pray “our Father” is to take with us into prayer everyone who can call God “Father” - and who are we to judge who is included in that. Prayer cannot be an escape from our common humanity or a safe haven for our selfish likes & dislikes. However difficult my relationship with someone else, however sure I am that they are “wrong”, I cannot ask God to take my side against them. I need to find a way - metaphorically at least - to pray with them, as if alongside them.

In their book Lord Teach Us Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon make a similar point about our phrase for today, “your kingdom come”. Our prayers are to be for the kingdom of God not, for instance, for “our nation” or even “our family”. Of course, this put the early church at odds with an empire which expected not only loyalty to the empire but even worship of the emperor, and can put us at odds today with the gods of our culture such as nationalism and consumerism.

So that’s my first point: to pray “your kingdom come” is to focus away from our own petty or territorial concerns and towards Jesus and his concerns. (That’s not to say our griefs and joys, our fears and hopes don’t count - I’m talking about not letting our parochial or partisan concerns or our envies and rivalries get in the way of praying for the coming of God’s kingdom.) And my next point is like unto the first, to pray “your kingdom come” is to remember that we are pilgrims and strangers, resident aliens, whose citizenship is in the kingdom of God and whose loyalty is to Jesus.

Now, I’m already two points in and I haven’t tried to define “the kingdom of God”. Maybe that’s because there isn’t really a neat one sentence definition, or better still a one verse definition lifted straight from one of the gospels. Perhaps that’s partly because for Jesus’ Jewish hearers, the idea of the kingship and sovereignty of God ran through their entire scriptures. In their book Kingdom Ethics Stassen and Gushee point out how the life and words of Jesus echo the book of Isaiah. And Isaiah was probably significant for forming 1st century Jewish expectations of the kingdom of God. Isaiah looks forward to a time when God will act to deliver the oppressed and bring salvation. And the words and images that come up time and time again in Isaiah’s descriptions of this deliverance are light, joy, peace, justice, righteousness, healing and return from exile. So perhaps this is the vision Jesus’ use of the phrase “the kingdom of God” conjured up for his listeners - and it certainly sounds familiar to anyone who knows Romans 14:17: “For the kingdom of God is… righteousness (or justice) and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

But maybe also Jesus doesn’t bother defining the kingdom of God because the kingdom of God is what Jesus’ life is all about. He doesn’t need to define it because he is living it. Listen to Jesus’ at the synagogue in Nazareth, in Luke 4:16-21:

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

So to pray “your kingdom come” is to pray for signs of the life of Jesus to become visible among us. Now the church can be one of those signs - but there’s a warning from J├╝rgen Moltmann (via Chris Marshall for those who remember his time in this church):
The church is not there for its own sake. It is there for the sake of 'Jesus' concern'. All the church's interests -- its continuation in its existing form, the extension of its influence -- must be subordinated to the interests of the kingdom of God. If the spirit and the institutions of the church are in line with God's kingdom, then the church is Christ's church. If they run counter to God's kingdom, the church loses its right to exist and becomes a superfluous religious society.

The last point I want to make about the kingdom is that it is full of paradox. In the early days of Jesus ministry he proclaims “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). So the kingdom is brought in by Jesus and it is already here. But it’s not fully here yet - we can all think of hundreds of ways in which our world today falls short of righteousness and peace and joy, of letting the oppressed go free. And although the kingdom of God dawns with Jesus, although in Jesus some of those visions of Isaiah are realised, and although we are to wait eagerly and expectantly and hopefully for God’s continued interventions, we are also called to do something ourselves - to repent and believe, to get involved, to enact that hope in God, to act - and to pray - faithfully for God’s kingdom to come.

The kingdom of God - for those of you who have been following John and Anicka’s blog as they prepare to move house within Kinshasa - is like a house that is structurally sound and has great potential and where you have all the necessary agreements with the landlord that you can move in in due course but where the plumbing may not actually be functional just yet and which will take some months and plenty of money to fix up before they can move in and longer still till it becomes a home. Or the kingdom of God “is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches” (Luke 13:19). The seed is sown in Jesus but there’s some growing and spreading still to do before the earth is full of mustard trees. In fact on Tuesday evening we used a liturgy which sent us out “in joy and service scattering like tiny seeds” to be part of the spreading of the kingdom, to be “the irrepressible weeds of peace”.

But Jesus tells his disciples to pray not only for the coming of the kingdom but for the Father’s will to be done. Does that contradict what I’ve just been saying about our part in God’s purposes? Do we actually just need to sit and wait for God to do it all? Hauerwas and Willimon say that while praying “your kingdom come” challenges us to be hopeful and actively involved with the kingdom, “your will be done” helps us learn patience, to learn not to turn to violence as we long for the kingdom to come but, rather, to wait to achieve those dreams with God, to practise Gelassenheit as we trust to God to act.

I have to say that I find this difficult. Sometimes I am quite passive so “waiting for God” sounds attractive, but maybe this is a temptation. Perhaps there are times when I have a responsibility not to wait but to act. But I can be impatient too, so sometimes jumping into what I see as the tide of the kingdom will appeal, but perhaps that too is a temptation. And I don’t know the answer, indeed I am wrestling with concrete questions along these lines right now.

What can I do? Well, I fear there is no quick fix answer. Maybe I have to practise praying “your will be done” - practise praying it day after day, week after week - trying to learn what God wants. Perhaps in the faithful praying of those few words I can express a longing along the lines of the well known prayer (but rather more wordy!) God, grant me the Gelassenheit to wait patiently for your time and intervention where that is most helpful, the courage to act where acting can help build your kingdom, the obedience to act faithfully even where it seems pointless - and the wisdom to know the difference, to know your will and to pray “your kingdom come”.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Our Father in Heaven, Hallowed be your Name

Preacher: Lesley

This is the beginning of our sermon series in which we are going to look at the Lord’s Prayer. It may seem that going through this prayer sentence by sentence will be extremely boring. But I have found that in just looking at it’s beginning, I have so many questions and ideas that I’m not going to fit them into a sermon!

The version of the Lord’s Prayer that we usually use is the one in Matthew, which we heard read. We took a slightly larger passage just to put it in it’s context in the sermon on the mount, where it’s part of Jesus’ instruction against what we might call ‘showing off’ our religion.

In the parallel passage in Luke 11, Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them how to pray, as John the Baptist did for his disciples.

Either way it arose we can learn immediately that:
1) Jesus believes that prayer is important.
2) There is a good and not-so-good way to go about it.

The Matthew passage tells us that prayer is something private, not something to be done ostentatiously to show how pious someone is, but the cultivation of a private relationship with God.

It’s not quite clear what Jesus meant when he condemned ‘heaping up empty phrases such as the Gentiles do’. He may have had in mind the repletion of certain phrases such as Hare Krishna or Hail Mary or even Lord have mercy. But it could also mean not using set prayers. In this case what we call the Lord’s prayer may have been intended not as a prayer to be used in public and private worship but as a pattern for the kind of things we should say when we pray. (The Mormons, for instance, will not use the Lord’s Prayer for that reason.) I think there is some merit in this but I also remember Alan Kreider describing the way that after his father had a stroke he was not able to communicate in other ways, but was able to repeat prayers he had learnt by heart. I hope Ian won’t mind me saying that this has been important in praying with his very frail father.

Whether or not we think it’s important to know set prayers, it’s clear that Jesus It’s not about ‘saying your prayers’ – I mean by that going through a routine of words without really having mind and emotions engaged in the content of the prayer. (My late husband Bernard used to describe his father trying to rattle through his Jewish morning prayers while indicating that yes he would like a cup of tea or something.) Nor is it about amassing some sort of religious merit award for praying.

Jesus says repeating something over and over again is not helpful – God is not deaf and the repetitions can become a meaningless ritual. The most important thing is that prayer is directed towards God and that it has real significance and content. Jesus clearly thinks that prayer is an essential activity, because it is about a relationship to God, who is there listening no matter where we are. God knows what we need before we speak, but the important thing is to speak, because without that articulation there is no 2-way relationship of love and trust.

Just imagine a phone conversation carried out in the way that we sometimes pray.

Here is John calling Linda

John: O Linda
Linda: Yes, John
John: O Linda
Linda: Yes, John
John: O Linda
Linda: What is it, John?
John: O Linda
Linda: What do want, John?
John: O Linda
Linda: Look John, you called me. I haven’t got time for this!
John: I love you Linda
Linda: That’s nice
John: I love you, Linda
Linda: I love you too, John
John: I love you Linda
Linda: Yes, John, I love you, but what do you want?
John: Roses are red, violets are blue
Sugar is sweet and so are you
Linda: That’s lovely, John, but I’ve got to go now.
John: How do I love thee? Let me count the ways...
Linda: You’re wonderful too, John
John: My love is like a red, red rose, that’s newly sprung in June
My love is like a violin that’s sweetly played in tune.
Linda: That’s sweet but I’m sorry John, please tell me what you want!
John: Love means never having to say that you’re sorry.
Linda: That’s it, I haven’t got time for this. Tell me why you’re ringing or
hang up!
John: It is better to have loved and lost than never to have lost at all.
Linda: Goodbye, John
John: O Linda, Love never fails.

So whether the Lord's Prayer is a guideline on how to pray or something to be learned and repeated by rote, the attitude of the mind and heart and attention to the content of what we say are both important.

In fact most of what Jesus said in the Lord’s prayer was quite familiar to his Jewish hearers, except, perhaps this emphasis on forgiveness, which is why perhaps he reinforces after teaching his disciples the prayer – but that is material for a later sermon. But looking very carefully at the content of that prayer we can learn a great deal.

Let’s look at what it says.

The first word in our English translation of Matthew may immediately cause us problems. It is…? ‘Our’ is definitely there in the Greek. We usually say ‘our’ when we’re in public worship and we’re used to that. But hang on a moment. Isn’t this the way that Jesus said that we should pray when we’re in private? Who is this ‘we’ who have invaded my privacy and who may also address God as Father?

I was helped to see the strangeness of this ’our’ when I came across the writing on the Lord’s Prayer by F.D Maurice, who preached 9 sermons on it in 1848. This was a long time ago but many things have not changed. One of these is that we may not always feel identified with other people. We might not want to bring them with us to God in the privacy of our relationship with Him. He wrote;” How can we look around upon the people whom we habitually feel to be separated from us by almost impassable barriers… upon the people of an opposite faction to our own…upon men whom we have reason to despise… and then teach ourselves to think that in the very highest exercise of our lives, these are associated with us.” Maurice goes on to talk about all the divisions in society and barriers between people which we must overcome in approaching God. This chimes well with Jesus’s previous statement in Matthew 5; 23 that you should be reconciled with your brother or sister before offering your gift at the altar.

In our culture, though, there is something that would be unfamiliar in the First century and even to FD Maurice – and that is our individualism. In this century people may often that they can be Christians without being involved with church. They believe that their faith is just a matter between themselves as individuals and God. We see it in the number of songs which are about ‘My Saviour’, ‘My God’ etc. The psalms show us that there is a place for this, but the pattern Jesus lays down for prayer in general is that it is about me praying in the context of belonging to a group. The implication of ‘our’ is that in coming to God, in our most intimate prayer, we are not individuals Jesus expects us to identify with, bring with us and speak on behalf of all those who can call him Father – that is, all the family of God, whoever they may be.

The idea of God as Father was not new to Jesus’ hearers. It is there in the Hebrew Scriptures. They would, probably, though, have thought that the children of God were really the Jews - God’s chosen people. But the passage we heard from Galatians (3;26 - 4;7) tells us who the children of God are. They are those who have believed in Christ, the Son of God, and have become associated with him through baptism. This passage goes on to make clear that our ability to recognize God as our Father is a work of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise how could we presume to call him Daddy, as Galatians indicates.

But Maurice points out that this adoption as God’s children rests on the act of Jesus for all humankind, that the nature of the family of God was shown by the Spirit giving people the ability to call God Father in the language of every nation. He concludes ‘the baptized community was literally to represent mankind’. It is not given to us to distinguish those to whom God’s saving grace will be given. We are not the judges. Anyone and everyone is potentially within the scope of God’s salvation. So in coming into God’s presence in prayer, we are expected to bring the whole of humanity and recognize them as family.

I don’t want to go deeply into the question of the fatherhood or motherhood of God here. What is important is that God is a parent, having infinitely more of the characteristics of parenthood than any man or woman ever could. In a patriarchal society the term ‘mother’ would have indicated nurturing but also relative powerlessness – and that is not what Jesus or the New Testament writers were seeking to convey. They were trying to depict the ultimate caring relationship together with the ultimate power to create and save.

If we are then God’s children, all believers are part of the same family, not only heirs of everything God has promised but brothers and sisters of Christ and of each other. Unfortunately, as psycho-analysts and those using Family Systems Theory can tell us, conflicts within the family can be the deepest, most painful and most intractable. The Old Testament is full of dysfunctional families, giving rise to feuds which span generations. Real communities that meet in the name of God are often not much different and I praise God for the work of BridgeBuilders which helps to reduce some of those divisions.

Real families are seldom what Hollywood would have us believe – and yet we all know what they should be like. .So, when we name God as Our Father, we are also committing ourselves to be family in the way we know we should be, to all the other brothers and sisters of Jesus – no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all one in Jesus. For Maurice, when we insist upon these human distinctions, which bolster up our pride and position, we have failed to take on the saving death and resurrection of Christ and cannot claim God as our Father.

In Maurice’s sermon even the words ‘who art’ take on a great significance as they indicate the current living nature of God, active even now. Then there's the issue of Heaven and where it may be. I think we all have a good idea that being in Heaven implies the holiness and divinity of God, and the fact that he is greater than all earthly things.

At the time of Jesus, there is no doubt that people believed that Heaven or ‘the heavens’ are somewhere ‘up there’. The astronauts did not find heaven in space, though perhaps they changed our view of Earth for ever. But, long before the first blast off, we knew that the residence of God probably was not anywhere in our Universe, but in some way beyond it, in some other dimension or spiritual reality. Does that change what we know of Heaven? One thing we know is that after being raised from death Jesus ascended to Heaven. So as well as being where God is, Heaven is where Jesus’ resurrection body is. Since people’s worldview has changed and we no longer see Heaven as being up in the sky somewhere, ascension seems to mean means that Jesus is no longer present in our world. But the early church saw Jesus continuing to be incarnated in the Universe, since for them Heaven was a part of it and therefore Jesus is able to be present with us. A group of theologians at Kings College London, where Sue and I both studied, have been looking at this problem. As far as I can understand it they have concluded that Jesus must still be present within the Cosmos, in a transformed way, perhaps interpenetrating all of it at some level. As a result they have come up with a theological movement they call Transformation Theology, which seeks to base theology much more in the real world rather than in theory and ideas. I must say I don’t really know how it works but they are finding these ideas a dynamic incentive for theological thought to be more actively engaged in what goes on in the world – and that, surely must be a good thing,
The first thing we do in praying, apart from establishing our relationship with God, is to honour God’s Name. The Name very much part of the Jewish tradition, in which the name of God is seen as something holy in itself because it sums up all that God does and is. It was traditionally too holy to be pronounced, so God may still be referred to as Hashem – the Name

The pattern of prayer that Jesus recommends does not start by asking for daily bread. Jesus tells us that God already knows what we need and it would seem more honest to cry out the desire of our heart without what seem like artificial gestures to the greatness of God. A couple of weeks sgo, my son Adam and I visited Windsor castle and we saw the way that the progression and layout of the state rooms reflected all the procedures and rituals that were necessary before you approached the presence of the King. The beginning of the Lord’s prayer may seem like visiting the King and having to bow formally to and make lots of flowery praises (O king live for ever) before we can petition for justice or whatever. Does God really want us to prostrate ourselves or kiss his ring before we can speak to Him?

In fact, the Lord’s prayer does not say “I hallow your Name”. It asks that God’s Name be hallowed. The word hallowed here means the same as sanctified – made sacred or seen to be most high and worthy. In this prayer we are asking that God may be recognized for what God is – the unutterable greatness, glory and splendour, whose goodness is beyond what we can ever imagine. And yet despite and because of this holiness we recognize that this is the One who fulfils every secret longing of our heart. Because more than bread to survive and more even than to be forgiven, our souls yearn after the divine.

It puts me in mind of computer dating sites that match people by likes and dislikes, looks, personality etc. Fine as far as it goes. But don’t we really long not for someone who is just like us but who is somehow a little bit better than us. If that valuable and desirable person can be attracted to me, aren’t I just a little bit better than my worst estimate of myself? Or maybe that’s just me. Augustine wrote ‘You made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they find themselves in thee’.

When we say ‘hallowed be your Name’ we are saying that we do not seek a pocket God who just does what we want, but a God who is far beyond us. This is the One who we are commanded to love with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. Can we do less than to ask for the world to recognize and revere the one that we love?

The amazing thing is that One who we approach with our banal requests is the creator of the Universe. This is the one about whom Isaiah wrote: “For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place,’ and then he continues ‘and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” And the amazing thing we see in the Lord’s Prayer is that this everlasting spirit, who is beyond anything we can imagine, not only is willing to listen to our prayer, but in Jesus to become human and to live with us for ever. Amen.