July 28, 2013
When I was about 16, my grandmother had a stroke, and came to live with us for a while. Because our house was fairly small, she had to sleep in the same bedroom as me. One night, I was woken up by the sound of her voice. As I listened, I realised that she was repeating the Lord’s Prayer, over and over again, in her sleep.
I was surprised. My grandma was not a churchgoer when I knew her, and I had never heard her say a prayer before. Yet, in this time of illness, what came from the depths of her memory to meet her need was the Lord’s Prayer.
I would imagine that some of you may have had similar experiences – of people returning to these familiar words at times of stress, fear, pain or approaching death. They are, I would think, the words repeated most often by Christians – the only prayer used at virtually every Christian service (and even used twice in Evensong according to the Book of Common Prayer! ) – the one prayer that all Christians can say together.
In the Gospel today, we have one version of how the words of the Lord’s Prayer were taught to the disciples: in response to a specific request: “Lord, teach us how to pray”. In Matthew’s Gospel, it comes as part of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus prefaces it with a warning against showy and repetitive prayers.
What, I wonder, was our Lord’s intention when he taught these word to his followers? Did he mean them to become a fixed format, repeated down the generations, to become the prayer of his church? Or were they, as many think, meant not as a fixed prayer, but as a pattern for prayer.
For one problem with the Lord’s Prayer is that we use it so often, it is so familiar to us, that it can easily become the sort of prayer that Jesus warned his disciples against in the Matthew passage – “vain repetition” as the King James Bible puts it, or “meaningless words” as the Good News Bible translates. You know how it is when you drive a familiar route, with your mind on something else – you do it on autopilot. It’s easy to do the same with the Lord’s Prayer. You repeat it without actually hearing what you are saying; you come to the end and realise with a jolt that your lips have been repeating the phrases automatically, and that although you’ve said the prayer, you haven’t actually prayed it at all: mouth in gear, brain and heart in neutral!
How then can we overcome the problem of familiarity with the Lord’s Prayer and bring it alive for ourselves again?
One way is to read these passages, in Luke 11 and Matthew 6, where the prayer first occurs. Each of the evangelists presents the situation slightly differently, and the contexts give the prayer different emphases. They also have quite a few differences in the words of the prayer. Matthew speaks about forgiving debts and debtors; Luke about sins. In the phrase about daily bread, Matthew uses the Greek form of the command ‘give’ which is used for something that happens once; Luke uses the form for something that is to keep on happening, and adds the words ‘each day’, whereas Matthew only has ‘today’. So, we can see Matthew taking things day by day ( since he wrote for a community that expected the Lord to return soon ) and Luke takes a longer perspective ( since, perhaps, his community no longer expected an early Parousia.)
It is also good to read as many different translations as you can, to pick up all the different nuances of the prayer. Different translators help you to find new insights into the prayer. It is particularly useful with the Lord’s Prayer, where there are difficulties in translating some parts. For instance the Greek word ‘epiousios’ in the petition about bread is found nowhere else in ancient Greek literature, so we can only guess what it means. It is usually translated ‘daily’ but it could mean ‘sufficient’ or ‘necessary’, ‘for today’ or ‘for tomorrow’.
You might even find it useful to read the Lord’s prayer in a foreign language! You don’t have to be an expert in the language to do so – after all you know the translation off by heart! But if you understand even a little of the language, the different words, the slight difference of emphasis in another tongue might bring a new depth of meaning to the prayer for you. Just an example: several years ago, I picked up a version of the gospel of Matthew in French from the chapel at Lyons Airport, in which the petition about daily bread was written ‘Donne nous aujourdhui le pain qu’il nous faut’: literally, give us today the bread which is necessary to us, which picks up one of the possible alternative meanings of the original Greek.
Although the process of liturgical revision has its down side, in that there are now several versions of the Lord’s Prayer in English, so that you can no longer assume that when you say ”We will now say the Lord’s Prayer together’ everyone will recite the same phrases, it has brought the benefit that we can now choose from three or four liturgical versions of the prayer, as well as the versions in Luke and Matthew, if we want it in a different form. And there are also unofficial translations, which bring the petitions up to date – like this one from Jim Cotter:
Eternal Spirit, Life-Giver, Pain-Bearer, Love-Maker,
Source of all that is and shall be,
Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven:The Hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your Justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your Commonwealth of Peace and Freedom sustain our hope and come on earth!
With the bread that we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and for ever. Amen.
A second way that you might find new depths of meaning in the Lord’s Prayer is to move as you say it. Many years ago, I took a youth group away for the weekend, and we spent part of out time exploring how to worship through dance. I worked out a dance version of the Lord’s Prayer to a folk setting of the communion service I had on tape, and I learned that to express the prayer with my whole body gives it a depth of meaning that it doesn’t have when I just say the words.
Perhaps the idea of ‘dancing a prayer’ fills you with horror. It is certainly an unusual thing to do in our religious culture, which is so word and brain fixated, that we have been encouraged to worship God from the neck upwards and forget the rest of our body. But if you read your Bible, and particularly the Psalms, you will find there a long tradition of worshipping God not just with words and music, but also with dance.
But perhaps you feel your body is no longer up to moving to music. In that case, move just your head and arms. Rosemary Budd, in her book Moving Prayer, has several suggestions of simple movements that can be added to the Lord’s Prayer, as an aid to a deeper devotional life. And if you obey Jesus’ instructions about prayer in Matthew’s Gospel, and go into a room by yourself and shut the door when you pray, there’s no need for you to feel self-conscious about moving your body as you pray.
A third way of getting more out of the Lord’s Prayer is to use it as, perhaps, Jesus intended, as a pattern for prayer rather than a complete prayer in itself. So you take each phrase separately, think about its meaning, and allow other prayers to arise from it. ‘Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name’ may lead you into praising God’s holiness and loving care for us, or into intercessions for the conversion of a particular person, or for mission to a particular part of the world. ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done’ might lead to prayers for political situations. ‘Forgive us our trespasses’ might lead to confession, and ‘as we forgive those who trespass against us’ to asking for God’s help in reconciling yourself to those whom you feel have wronged you – and so on.
You might find it helpful to read a book about the Lord’s Prayer by an expert theologian, to help you tease out the real meanings of the petitions, especially those that are difficult to translate adequately, like “lead us not into temptation’. One good book on the subject is William Barclay’s “The Plain Man looks at the Lord’s Prayer’ -which can be used by the plain woman just as well.
‘This is how you should pray’ said Jesus, and instead of giving us a lengthy treatise on prayer, he gave us ten short, easily remembered phrases – his prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, and the pattern for all our prayers. It is a prayer which puts God at the centre, and which lays before God our present, past and future lives. It is a prayer which is so simple that we can pray it unconsciously, yet which is so deep that we can come to it again and again, and find new meaning in it.
As we continue to use the words which our Lord taught us, as we use our minds and our voices and our bodies to explore its depths, may it bring us ever closer to him.
Jim Cotter. Prayer at Night. 1983
July 14, 2013
Sermon for Trinity 6. Yr. C. ( Luke 10, 25-37)
When a preacher stands up here on a Sunday morning, you have certain expectations of what will happen. If I were to start performing a pop song, or a magic trick, or threw a football into the congregation, you might think it was something to do with the sermon, but if I carried on without making a serious point, you’d be confused; and if I started to wash my hair or clean my teeth, you would not only be confused, you’d be embarrassed, and a lot of you would think “She’s lost the plot! She obviously doesn’t know where she is!”
But I do know where I am. I’m on the Jericho road – and so are you!
We all operate for most of our life with a set of expectations about what will happen, what will be said and done, and how other people will behave. These expectations are based on clues given by place, dress, tradition, conventions, stereotypes and our previous experience. Life would be pretty impossible if we couldn’t operate that way, if we had to make decisions from scratch about how cope with all the different experiences that face us every day as with live in our families and in the world.
But those expectations don’t operate on the Jericho road.
They don’t operate because the Jericho road exists in the world of the parable – and the parable faces its hearers with a situation which turns all their previous expectations upside down.
Some Biblical scholars have made it their life’s work to try to find the authentic words of Jesus: those words which Jesus actually spoke, rather than those which were put into his mouth by the preachers and teachers of the Early Church. Most of the arguments and dialogue with his opponents, like the conversations with which Luke surrounds the parable of the Good Samaritan are thought not to be authentic, but the additions of the gospel writers. But the parables themselves, with their subversive reversal of expectations, are judged to be the authentic voice of Jesus, a voice which proclaims the values of the Kingdom, and in doing so redraws the map of the social and religious world in which we operate.
And the Jericho road is one of the most important places on that map.
The Jericho road is a dangerous place and a frightening place. On the Jericho road there are no rules, no boundaries and our stereotypes have no foundation. On the Jericho road, everything is turned upside down. And this is because, on the Jericho road, we meet God, and we must operate by God’s values and according to God’s expectations.
The lawyer who asked Jesus questions about how to inherit eternal life thought he knew how to travel the Jericho road. He thought it was a matter of following the religious rules and knowing all the right definitions. But those rules and those definitions prevented him from actually encountering God. The parable, which was Jesus’ answer to his questions, broke through all those neat definitions of a ‘neighbour’ that centuries of rabbinic refinement had constructed, definitions that excluded anyone who wasn’t Jewish, anyone who didn’t keep a host of nit-picking rules, anyone who wasn’t conventionally religious.
The parable overturned the expectation that the first duty of a religious functionary was to keep himself pure and undamaged for the performance of religious rites. The parable reversed the stereotype of the Samaritan as one who would react to an injured Jew with hostility. For in the parable, the Samaritan plays the role of God, and as God, he reacts to the situation with compassion.
‘Compassion’ in English is a fairly bland word. But as used of God, it has an enormous depth of meaning. God in the Old Testament is a God of ‘hesed’ a Hebrew word for which there is no adequate English translation. As well as compassion it includes love, kindness, faithfulness, tenderness, consistency, pity, dependability and humanity. But above all it involves a passion that our nice English translations fail to convey. When God looks down on wayward humanity, when the Samaritan sees the wounded man on the Jericho road they are filled with an emotion that is gut-wrenching in its intensity. It is an emotion that knows no boundaries of race, tribe, religion, gender or status. It is an emotion which puts human need first, and an emotion that demands action.
And the parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that, if we want to experience eternal life, we ordinary people must feel as God feels, and act as God acts, whenever we find ourselves on the Jericho road.
One of the problems with parables is that we tend to take them too literally. So we apply the teaching about helping our neighbour only in situations of physical danger, we update the parable in terms of mugging and road accidents, we change the good Samaritan into a person of another race, or class – or the supporter of a rival football team. Of course, we might find ourselves on the Jericho road on a real road, as we drive along or walk to school. But it won’t necessarily be so. We could find ourselves on the Jericho road anywhere, at any time, in any situation when we are faced with a decision that calls upon us to show God’s compassion to our fellow human beings.
For the Jericho road runs through our daily lives, through our homes and our schools and our workplaces. We are on the Jericho road whenever we have to choose to act, or stand by and do nothing, to say something or keep silent; whenever we vote, whenever we have to respond to a planning application that might affect our comfort or the value of our property, and whenever we shop and have to make decisions about whether to go for the fairly traded or environmentally friendly option or for the cheapest and most easily available one. In all these situations we are asked by Jesus’ parable to recognise that people we have never met, people who are totally unlike ourselves, people in need are our neighbours in the Kingdom of God.
The Jericho road runs straight through the Church, and we are on it whenever we are tempted to become a tribal church, accepting only ‘people like us’ into membership, instead of being the holy and catholic church that we proclaim ourselves to be in the creed. It is a major tragedy that so often we in the church fail to recognise that we are on the Jericho road when we make our decisions about how our church life is to be organised – and that so often we become the priest or the Levite, and walk by on the other side.
We who call ourselves Christians are always on the Jericho road. And our God of compassion is constantly giving us fresh opportunities to be the good Samaritan, to become a neighbour to the one who fell among thieves. For Jesus came to teach us that eternal life is not something you earn by obeying the rules, or living a cosy life of being nice to the deserving poor. Eternal life is something we live, day by day, as we take decisions and act on them.
Jesus invites us, every moment of our lives, to set out on the dangerous and difficult journey on the road to Jericho. He asks us to be at home in a different world, in a world turned upside down, where a Samaritan knows more about the God of Israel than a priest and a top religious lawyer. He invites us into a world where religion is about what we do every day of the week, not about what we do on Sundays.
He invites us to leave the safety of Jerusalem and travel the Jericho road, so that we may meet, in the guise of the Good Samaritan, our God of passionate compassion. And he promises us that, if we do, there on the Jericho road we will find ourselves inheritors of eternal life.
July 7, 2013
Isaiah 66, 10-14; Galatians 6, 1-16; Luke 10 1-11.
I recently read a story online about a couple and their daughter who emigrated from Hull to Australia after watching a TV documentary about the luxurious life there – and then returned to the UK two months later because of the high cost of living they encountered, the difficulty of getting their favourite foods, and missing their families. It cost them £10K to move to Australia – and now they are back without their furniture, and without a permanent place to live.
I just can’t imagine making a major decision like moving house, let alone moving continents without a lot of research beforehand. Even when we go on holiday, we look up hotels on TripAdvisor and make sure we have somewhere to stay; we make lists for what we pack, and plan out routes before we set off.
So, the Gospel passage for today, which has been described as ‘The Owner’s Instruction Manual for Christian Mission’ is really rather daunting for me. I tend to follow the Scout motto ‘Be Prepared’, but this passage seems to be saying “Be UNPrepared”. It seems to go against everything that our society regards as sensible – planing things out, taking out insurance, making sure you’ve got the resources to finish something before you start, relying on yourself and your abilities, and so on. What is God saying to us through this passage?
This passage comes in the second half of Luke’s Gospel, after the Transfiguration, when Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem. It parallels the sending out of the 12 Apostles in Luke 9, and reflects Luke’s special interest in mission to the Gentiles (in the Bible 12 is the number of Israel and 70 or 72 the number of the whole earth). So this passage is telling us about the wider mission of the church.
Jesus doesn’t minimise the challenges of mission activity – then, as now there will be plenty of resistance to the Good News, fuelled by fear, by indifference, by self-interest as the message of the coming Kingdom challenges the prevailing power structure. Jesus warns his disciples that they will be going as “sheep among wolves”. He warns them that the work will be hard: “The harvest is ready but the workers are few”. He doesn’t give them impossible targets; their job is simply to prepare the ground for his arrival. They are to speak words of peace, heal the sick and announce the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. The implication is that he will do the rest, building on their preparatory work, when he comes.
Some of the instructions Jesus give seem familiar to us as we plan church activities. First of all he instructs his disciples to pray – but the prayers are not for success, but for each other, and for more and more people to become involved with the work of mission. That’s a good reminder for us that mission is not the work just of the ordained, or of trained mission workers, but of every Christian.
Second, Jesus instructs them to go out in pairs, a sensible instruction when we go out into hazardous environments; but it’s not just about our personal safety – it reminds us also that we are part of a Christian community, made up of members with many different skills and talents, all of which may be useful in bringing different sorts of people into fellowship. In today’s world, when there is so much cult of personality, we tend to focus on individuals and what they achieve; it is all to easy to forget the people who support and co-operate with the front line workers, and so play their part in the harvest of mission. The church has tended to do that too: this story is a useful counter to that. We know the names of the 12 apostles who were sent out, and have made them into saints, and named churches after them. We don’t know anything about these 70 or 72 disciples, not even their names. They stand for the thousands, even millions of faithful Christians who have worked to bring in the Kingdom of God throughout history and continue to do so now.
Jesus also gives them a script to follow. He tells them what to say: “Peace be on this house. The Kingdom of God has come near to you.” It’s a very simple slogan – short, to the point, affirming. It would even fit into a Tweet!
Modern evangelism courses often try to equip ordinary Christians with a script; but they are rarely as simple and affirming as that. How often have Christians gone into situations speaking words of peace and affirmation? If you look at the media today, the impression given is that Christians are against things and people, and condemn rather than affirm. Perhaps we would do better at bringing in the Kingdom if we went back to Jesus’s script!
These instructions are easy to follow. It is the rest of the manual that goes against our instincts. Every mission initiative that I’ve heard about has involved lots of preparation, lots of expenditure and lots of equipment. But Jesus says: take nothing with you, not even any money, rely on strangers for food and accommodation, accept whatever you’re offered without complaint – in short, travel light!
That might have seemed less strange in Jesus’s time than it does now. Hospitality to strangers was a social obligation in Biblical society in a way it is not for ours. To mistreat visitors brought condemnation of the harshest kind. Later, in a continuation of the passage that we don’t get in the lectionary, Jesus says that it will be better for the town of Sodom on judgement day than for any town that rejects his disciples, reminding us that the sin of Sodom had nothing to do with homosexuality – it was mistreatment of strangers and abuse of hospitality that brought punishment and destruction upon them, not gay sex.
What was Jesus really saying to the disciples with these instructions? I think he was asking them to rely on God, and not on themselves. In our Old Testament reading, through the words of the prophet Isaiah, we hear God’s promise that he will nurture those who serve him as a mother nurtures her children, and protect them as they would be protected in a walled city like Jerusalem. It is that sort of total trust that Jesus asked of his disciples and asks of us. He asks them to make themselves vulnerable when they are engaged in evangelism – and he asks the same of us. He tells them to eat whatever is put in front of them; that would have been a much harder instruction for observant Jews, with their complex food laws, to accept than it is for us, but it reminds us that we are instructed to rely not just on those who are like us, but also, perhaps on those from a very different culture and with very different tastes from those which the Church has traditionally endorsed.
So how do we interpret these instructions for mission in today’s world? I don’t think it is really telling us to be unprepared in the sense of not spending money or using modern equipment with us when we engage in mission. But it is telling us to keep things simple and to concentrate on the essential of the Christian message and not get sidelined onto peripheral things. It reminds us that often it is the small things, not the grand gestures that advance the Kingdom – things like speaking words of peace and comfort, bringing healing into a tense situation, accepting the hospitality of those different from us, and not making a fuss when things are not done as we think they ought to be done. And things like helping at a foodbank, buying Fairtrade goods, twinning your toilet, or demonstrating for peace and justice.
It reminds us that we must be prepared to work with all sorts of different people to build the Kingdom; in our society that might include government agencies, atheists and humanists and even people of other faiths.
Above all it reminds us that the only equipment we need for mission is trust in the grace of God revealed through the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. This is the message that Paul gives to the Galatian Christians in the letter from which our Epistle reading came. He is advising them to rely on the Holy Spirit, and to live a life based on mutual love and service, rather than relying on the keeping of the Jewish law to bring them salvation. He acknowledges that this path will not be easy: it led Christ to the cross, and may well lead his followers to the same place, but it is the only way to serve God faithfully. What Christ’s followers must trust in is not their own individual talents, or earthly power-structures or miraculous demonstrations, but in God’s commitment to peace and justice, which will ultimately prevail.
So, however little it may seem we have available to us to fulfil the missionary task that Jesus gave us, we are not really unprepared. As Paul assures us, doing what is right, working for the good of all, trusting in the way of the cross will bring the harvest and bring in the new creation for which we hope.