Baptism of Christ – 8 January 2017

 

sermon preached at St Margaret Newlands

Isaiah 42: 1-9
Acts 10: 34-43
Matthew 3: 13-17

Eternal God, who at the baptism of Jesus
revealed him to be your Son,
anointing him with the Holy Spirit:
keep your people, born of water and the Spirit,
faithful to their calling;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.[1]

Today’s collect, for the baptism of Christ may be familiar to some of you.  It is also used in the baptism service here in the Scottish Episcopal Church if the baptism does not take place in the context of the Eucharist, which means that we do not use if very often here at St Margaret’s.  It speaks of the deep connection between Christ’s baptism by John in the river Jordan and our own baptism as Christians.  As this collect reminds us, in our baptism we, like Jesus, are born of water and the Spirit:  we pass through, or are washed in, water, and the Spirit fills us.  But the collect reminds us too that baptism, in the sense of the ceremony or the rite of baptism, is not an end in itself but a beginning. Baptism is not something that just is done to us, but a calling – a call to a new way of life.

We affirm our faith in baptism, and for many of us who were baptized as infants, perhaps more explicitly later in confirmation, often in a form of the Apostles’ Creed, which we can see from ancient documents was an early baptismal creed.  Another even earlier credal statement is found in today’s reading from Acts.  Those who believe, our reading tells us, have affirmed:

how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. … They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. (Acts 10:38-43)

We can see here the beginnings of formal statements about what Christians were to believe. These are important for explaining what newly baptized Christians are joining.  But baptism (and indeed confirmation) are not only about affirming the content of our faith: that Christ died for our sins, but about being called to live a life in thankfulness for that.  Richard Rohr writes in a meditation for this week:  “Christianity is meant to be a loving way of life now, not just a system of beliefs and requirements that people hope will earn them a later reward in heaven.”[2]  It is that loving – and I would want to add also prophetic – way of life into which our baptism calls us.  That is, baptism is not an end, but a beginning, for us as it was for Christ.

For Christ’s baptism is the beginning of his ministry.  It is the moment at which it becomes clear that he is come into the world for the people of the world.  Max Koranyi, a German theologian, has written that God did not need Jesus to be baptized.  God already God already knew who Jesus was, and had known it from the beginning of time.  But we needed Jesus to be baptized; we needed Jesus the Christ to enter the water of baptism before us, because in his baptism, Christ shows what he is doing – is going to do – for us.[3]  It is not a coincidence that we celebrate the baptism of Christ immediately after Epiphany.  The baptism of Christ is another Epiphany: it too is a manifestation of the Lord.  It is a moment, as our gradual hymn reminds us, in which time changed:

So when the Dove descended
on him, the Son of Man,
the hidden years had ended,
the age of grace began.[4]

Those of you who were here this morning for Radio 4 Sunday Worship, or who heard it on the radio, will see the connection with the poem “BC/AD” by U. A. Fanthorpe, which we read this morning:

This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.

This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.

This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.

And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect.
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.[5]

Jesus’s baptism is also a moment in which “Before / Turn[s] into After,” a call to us like the Magi “[to walk] haphazard by starlight straight / Into the kingdom of heaven.” Through Jesus’s baptism we see him differently:  the opening of the heavens and the descent of the Holy Spirit, the words from heaven, tell us with whom we are dealing: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved – my beloved son – with you I am well pleased.’  We see Jesus differently, we understand that he is the one sent by God, the Christ.  He does not become the Son of God at this baptism (that would be the adoptionist heresy, which the gospel of Mark comes perilously close to implying) but this is a moment in which his Son-ship is affirmed and witnessed, the moment in which his ministry begins.  Christ’s baptism is a confirmation of his calling.  The baptism of Christ witnesses that God is come into the world in Christ, and that through Christ God will make the world new.

One aspect of this, often emphasised by Orthodox theologians, is the renewal of creation, about which Isiah writes so eloquently.  This is a transformation of creation which transforms society also, as we are reminded in our Old Testament lesson, in which God says:  “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” Through his baptism, Christ affirms that water – which in the Old Testament is so often a symbol of chaos and destruction – is a symbol of life – eternal life.  Christ’s baptism shows the transformative properties of water, emphasises that water is good, just as God had said at the creation.   We are reminded of this in the blessing of the water in the Scottish Episcopal baptismal liturgy:

Holy God, well-spring of life,
in your love and justice,
you use the gift of water to declare your saving power.
In the beginning your Spirit moved over the face of the waters.
By the gentle dew, the steady rain,
you nourish and give increase to all that grows;
you make the desert a watered garden.
You command the wildness of the waves;
when the storm rages you calm our fear;
in the stillness you lead us to a deeper faith.
In the life-giving rivers and the rainbow
Israel discerned your mercy.
You divided the Red Sea to let them pass from slavery in Egypt
to freedom in the Promised Land.
In the waters of Jordan
penitents found forgiveness in the baptism of John.
There, Jesus your beloved child was anointed with the Holy Spirit,
that he might bring us
to the glorious liberty of the children of God.[6]

The Baptism of Christ is a sign of the renewal of creation, and that renewal includes us – that we might be brought “to the glorious liberty of the children of God.”

As we contemplate Christ who has come to renew the whole of creation we too are drawn into that process of transformation and renewal.  Our deserts – the deserts in our lives – become watered gardens; faced with the wildness of the waves and the raging of the storm, our fears are stilled.  The baptism of Christ reminds us of our own renewal through God, and of the way that we as a part of creation are drawn into its renewal.  But it reminds us too that we are also called to bring this transformation to others, and so be drawn into the task given by God to Christ.  That is, though our baptism, we discover that not only Christ, but we too are sent by God.  For this reason, the baptism of Christ is a reminder also of our own baptism, and that in turn reminds us of our own ministry.  As Timothy Radcliffe puts it, “If eternal life is the fullness of life, then we accept its gift by grasping our present life with enthusiasm,” and sharing that enthusiasm with others.[7]

God’s work of renewal comes about through his love, his recognition, his affirmation which he pours out upon Jesus the Christ, through Christ upon us.  We too receive the love, recognition, affirmation of God:  we too should recognise that we are God’s Beloved, that he is well pleased with us.  God’s words are not only for Christ, but for us:  You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter; with you I am well pleased.  And in and through that love, that recognition, that affirmation we are sent by God to share then in turn with those around us.  The Baptism of Christ should remind us that Christ was chosen by God from the beginning of time to be his Son, the Saviour of the world.  And in doing so it should remind each of us also that we too were from the beginning created and designed to be children of God.[8]

We are the children of God, called and sent by God.  Our baptism is a mark of that.  And for that reason, we too should hear God speaking to us, calling us, encouraging each of us to recognise ad accept our call:  You are my beloved daughter, my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.

Eternal God, who at the baptism of Jesus
revealed him to be your Son,
anointing him with the Holy Spirit:
keep your people, born of water and the Spirit,
faithful to their calling;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.   Amen

 

 

[1]  See the baptism liturgy of the Scottish Episcopal Church, available at:  http://www.scotland.anglican.org/who-we-are/publications/liturgies/holy-baptism-2006/.

[2]   See:  http://email.cac.org/t/ViewEmail/d/FDE76169832D6813/7FD4418B9959AFED44D0DD5392A9C75A (Tuesday).

[3]  Max Koranyi, Zum Leben gemacht. 365 Andachten (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Aussaat 2011), 14.

[4]  “When Jesus came to Jordan,” verse 2 (http://www.oremus.org/hymnal/w/w307.html).

[5]     See: http://www.journeywithjesus.net/PoemsAndPrayers/UA_Fanthorpe_BC_AD.shtml.  The service can be heard until 5.2.2017 on the radio four website:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b087pjt2.

[6]   Baptism liturgy of the Scottish Episcopal Church, available at:  http://www.scotland.anglican.org/who-we-are/publications/liturgies/holy-baptism-2006/.

[7]  Timothy Radcliffe, Take the Plunge: Living baptism and confirmation, 179.

[8]  Compare: Max Koranyi, Zum Leben gemacht, S. 15.

Hl. Stephanus – 26. Dezember 2016

Predigt in der altkatholischen Gemeinde Bottrop

Apostelgeschichte 6,8-10; 7,54-60
Matthäus 10,17-22

In jenen Tagen tat Stephanus, voll Gnade und Kraft, Wunder und große Zeichen unter dem Volk.

Heute gedenken wir des Heiligen Stephanus, des Diakons und des ersten Märtyrers.  Stephanus, der durch sein Leben anderen die Kraft Gottes vermitteln wollte, der seinen Peiniger die Vergebung ausgesprochen hat, und der bei seinem Tod den Menschensohn zur Rechten Gottes sitzen sah.  Am Tag nach dem Weihnachtsfest gedenken wir einen Märtyrertod.  Wir sind nicht mehr beim Kind im Stall, wir sind auch nicht bei den Kindheitsgeschichten.  Wir sind nicht mal bei Jesus als Flüchtling, als er mit seinen Eltern nach Ägypten fliehen müssten.  Das kommt alles noch.  Aber nicht heute.

Heute schauen wir in die Zeit, als Jesus schon gelebt hatte und gekreuzigt wurde, schon auferstanden und in den Himmel gefahren ist.  Wir sind heute nicht mehr in der Zeit der Geburt Christi, sondern schon in der Zeit der Kirche.  Wir stehen nicht an der Krippe im Stall, sondern wir sind Zeugen eines Märtyrertodes, des Todes eines Mannes, der diesem Jesus nachfolgen wollte.  Seltsam oder?  Seltsam oder?  Aber Maria Wachtler schreibt: „Weihnachten und das Fest des Heiligen Stephanus sind nur scheinbar ein Widerspruch.  Wer tiefer hinsieht, kann entdecken, dass sich hier ein Bogen spannt.  Unter diesem Spannungsbogen steht das Leben jedes Christen.“[1]  Die Geburt Christi, die Menschwerdung Gottes, ist ein Ereignis, das einen Bogen zwischen Geburt und Tod Jesu Christi spannt, und weiter – bis ins Leben eines jeden Christen, einer jeder Christin.  Gerade an der Verbindung zwischen Leben und Tod Christi erinnert uns manches Weihnachtslied, gerade die mittelalterlichen.  Bei den Deutschen Liedern wird eine Verbindung zwischen Jesus Maria und der Rose gestellt, die Rose, die nicht nur eine wunderschöne Blühte, sondern auch Stacheln hat. In einigen englischen Liedern wird von der „Holly“ gesungen:  von der Hülse, der Stachelpalme, die Stachel hat, und blutrote Beeren, die an Karfreitag erinnern.  Wir feiern in dieser Zeit die „gnadenbringende Weihnachtszeit“, wir feiern das Licht, das Finsternis vertreibt.  Dabei ist es uns auch bewusst, dass diese Gnade, dieses Licht, mit dem Tod Jesu – und mit seiner Auferstehung – verbunden sind.

Aber mehr: dieser Bogen wird auch zu uns gespannt, hat für uns eine Bedeutung.  Zu Anfang habe wir ein bekanntes Lied gesungen, der zwar in unserem Gesangbuch zu den Adventsliedern zählt, der für mich zumindest eigentlich zu den Weihnachtsliedern gehört:

Es kommt ein Schiff,
geladen bis an sein’ höchsten Bord,
trägt Gottes Sohn voll Gnaden,
des Vaters ewig’s Wort.

Und die 5. und die 6. Strophen sind für heute besonders treffend:

Und wer dies Kind mit Freuden
umfangen, küssen will,
muß vorher mit ihm leiden
groß’ Pein und Marter viel,

danach mit ihm auch sterben
und geistlich aufersteh’n,
ewig’s Leben zu erben,
wie an ihm ist gescheh’n.

Dieser Bogen spannt in der Tat nicht nur Geburt und Tod Jesus, sondern auch Leid und Martyrium bei uns Gläubigen.  Das klingt nicht schön, ist aber realistisch.  Denn Weihnachten bedeutet keine Flucht aus der Wirklichkeit.

Und wir müssen leider feststellen, dass mit der Geburt Christi Tod und Verfolgung und Krieg, Leiden und Trauer nicht aus der Welt verschwunden sind, auch bei Christen nicht.  Ein Impuls zur heutigen Lesungen fragt: „Wie soll da die Weihnachtsoktave in festlichen Stimmung durchgehalten werden?“  Und antwortet:

Gerade im Blick auf Stephanus, weil er den Tod nicht als Scheitern oder Auslöschung erlebte, sondern als Eingehen in den Frieden, den Weihnacht und Osternacht verheißen.  Es gibt seither kein Leid mehr, in dem Gott nicht anzutreffen wäre.  Ein Weihnachtsglaube, jedoch, der die Nachricht vom Märtyrerschicksal nicht aushält, wäre zu kleinmütig, um wirklich tragfähige Hoffnung zu vermitteln.[2]

Friedrich Weber, damals Bischof von Braunschweig, hat bei dem ARD  Weihnachtsgottesdienst vor ein paar Jahren zu dem Lied von Paul Gerhardt gepredigt, „Ich steh‘ an deiner Krippe her,“ das wir auch gleich singen werden:

Ein jeder von uns und eine jede hat seine oder ihre Todesnächte! Leid und Unfrieden, schlimme Krankheit, offene Gewalt gegen Fremde in unserem Land, Einsamkeit. Aber es gibt Hoffnung! Sie ist im Kind in der Krippe angebrochen. Kreuz und Leid wenden sich, weil Gott das so will. Das Kind in der Krippe ist die Wende, der Grund für alle Hoffnung und jeden Trost.[3]

Auch das heutige Evangelium warnt vor schwierigen Zeiten, Zeiten der Prüfung, Zeiten, in denen wir uns für den Glauben, für die Liebe Gottes einsetzen müssen.  Dabei kann es sein, dass wir Angst haben, dass wir es nicht schaffen.  Da verspricht Jesus noch dem Matthäusevangelium: „Macht euch keine Sorgen, wie und was ihr reden sollt; denn es wird euch in jener Stunde eingegeben.“ Margot Käßmann schreibt über Leben in Krisenzeiten:

Mich ermutigt der Gedanke, dass Gott uns die Kraft zu Bewältigung von Krisen nicht im Voraus gibt, weil wir sonst hochmütig werde. Aber wir dürfen darauf vertrauen, dass Gott uns mitten in der Krise, die Kraft gibt, damit umzugehen, wenn wir Gott darum bitten.[4]

Das Kind in der Krippe ist das Versprechen, die Verheißung Gottes an die Welt, dass wir nie alleine gelassen werden.  Dass es doch immer Hoffnung gibt, dass das Licht in die Dunkelheit kommt.  Dieser Bogen der Zuversicht „beginnt bei der Zusage Gottes an uns:  Fürchte dich nicht. Ich bin bei dir.  Der Himmel steht offen für dich.“[5]  Der Bogen, der auch das mit Gnade beladene Schiff zwischen Himmel und Erde segelt:

Der Anker haft’ auf Erden,
da ist das Schiff am Land.
Das Wort tut Fleisch uns werden,
der Sohn ist uns gesandt.

 

 

 

 

[1]   Te Deum, Dezember 2016, S. 264.

[2]  Te Deum, Dezember 2016, S. 266.

[3]   Friedrich Weber, Fernsehgottesdienst am 24. Dezember 2011, http://www.landeskirche-braunschweig.de/index.php?id=1211&file=772.

[4]   Margot Käßmann, „Kraft in der Krise“, in Lebensfreude. Worte, die stark machen, S. 59.

[5]   Te Deum, Dezember 2016, S. 264.

Advent 1 (A) – 27 November 2016

sermon preached at St Margaret Newlands

Isaiah 2.1-5
Romans 13.11-14
Matthew  24.36-44

 

 

It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.

 

Here we are at the beginning of the church year.  Advent is beginning.  Christmas is four weeks today (for this year Christmas Day falls on a Sunday), this time of preparation and waiting is upon us.  Advent is a time of waiting:  of waiting expectantly, of waiting hopefully for Christ to come into the world, to return to the world, to come to us.  There is a paradox here as so often with our faith:  this is a time of waiting for something that is not yet and yet which already is, a time of waiting for the coming of Christ who is already with us.

When will that be?  Nobody knows.  That is the message of Matthew’s Gospel: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  We do not know when, but we need to be prepared.  Matthew again:

If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

It is time to wake; the night is far gone, the day is near – and yet, we do not know when…  And what is odd about this is the juxtaposition of the coming of the Messiah, which is something for which we hope, with the coming of the thief, for whom we presumably don’t.

That is perhaps particularly striking because we find ourselves this Advent in a time of waiting of a very different kind.  A time of waiting and uncertainty: what is the future going to look like?  How will a Britain without Europe and a Europe without Britain work?  How will an America, and world, with Donald Trump as President of the USA look?  For some these questions too represent a waiting with hope and joyful expectation; for others this is a waiting with deep anxiety bordering on (or reaching into) despair.  Internationally, politically, we find ourselves in a time of waiting, uncertainty: when will this happen and what will it bring?

So the sense of the unexpected that we find in today’s gospel reading seems to resonate deeply with our world, and this extraordinary uncertainty.  We are in a period in which some of the givens of how the world works, its values, its priorities seem to be shifting and changing.  There has been a sense this year of the unexpected happening, of being taken by surprise.  A sense perhaps of the thief coming in the night and finding a house in which half were asleep and the other half awake and welcoming.  A world in which some were very ready for a way of thinking that seems to me at least to be in danger of drawing more on unrealistic hopes, perhaps driven by desperation and self-interest, than a vision of justice and peace and the intrinsic value of all people.  It is hard for me at least not to feel at present that the world has gone a bit mad, and to wonder what on earth all this means, and what I should be doing.

The Benedictine poet and theologian Silja Walter once wrote:

Keeping watch is our job.  Keeping watch.
Over the world as well,
which is so often foolish,
gadding around outside
and not coming home at night.
Does the world not know, Lord, that you are coming?
That you are the Lord and definitely on your way?[1]

That image of the world as foolish and forgetful resonates deeply with me.  There are overtones here of a world that has lost its way, which no longer knows how to wait on Christ, no longer even knows that it should be waiting on Christ.  In this year in which it feels rather as though some old securities and normalities are being shaken, it is easy to wonder if we are not looking at a world which has seriously lost its way.

But it can be hard sometimes to discern how God is working in our world.  It is intriguing that here in Matthew’s Gospel – in a passage which has parallels with Mark’s warning that the master will come at un unexpected hour, and which Luke explicitly connects to it[2] – Jesus’s coming is likened to the coming of a thief in the night.  How is the coming of the master who is to be welcomed, like the coming of the thief, the intruder who is presumably unwelcome?  The unexpectedness is the link.  Or is it?  Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians (1:1-3):

For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!

Here too the mixture of the promise and the threat, all brought together in the image of giving birth, the inexorable pains that bring the hope of new life.  Paul goes on, in words which resonate with our reading from Romans 13:

But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.

Or, in the words of today’s reading:

The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.

Threat and hope, suffering, pain and new life are all tangled up together here, and what is important is that we are children of light, that we put on the armour of light.  Whatever that means.

Part of what it means, I think, is to remember that it is hard to judge what is happening when it is in the middle of taking place.  Over the last few weeks, I have been reading six studies of the Reformation for a big review in the Times Literary Supplement.  As I was writing the review, it struck me that this is a story we know with hindsight, rather as we know the Easter story by hindsight.  We know it’s going to be all right in the end, because we know how it ends.  But that cannot have been how it felt at the time.  One Good Friday, who knew that Easter Sunday would come?  And so too in the sixteenth century:  when people began to talk about introducing the Reformation, it must have felt as though all the familiar certainties about the church, about society, about how things were arranged, all the things you had learned about how to get to heaven and assure yourself of eternal life, all those things were under threat.  One of my students said in class on Tuesday: I have just realised how disruptive it must have felt, to be suddenly told that you had to receive communion, and receive the bread and the wine, and not to go to confession…

They didn’t know, those people who experienced the Reformation in the first generation, they had no idea how it was going to turn out.  What had they been waiting for?  I suspect that quite a lot of those people nearly five hundred years ago in the first generation of the Reformation didn’t think it was the Reformation.  I wonder what people were preaching on Advent Sunday in, say 1523: did they believe that the Advent hope was being fulfilled?  The answer is clearly that some did and some did not at all.  What was happening must have felt like chaos and disintegration – and yet what emerged, ultimately, and after some very difficult birth pains, was a new order.

Now I don’t myself want to suggest that in Teresa May, Boris Johnson or Donald Trump we have a new Luther.  In my own reading, they are far from it—although I think for some of their followers this is the hope: that something new will happen and everything will better.  But a favourite biblical figure for many theologians of the sixteenth century was Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, who was a gentile and whose reign was in many ways deeply problematic.  However, he gets a good press in the old Testament, despite being a tyrant, because he liberated the Jews, by setting free the people of Israel from their captivity in Babylon.  Cyrus is often cited by Reformers as an example of someone who is not apparently imbued with God’s values, who finds himself, whether he wants it or not, acting on God’s behalf.  An unjust king, an unjust ruler, an unjust magistrate, argue many of the Reformers, can act on God’s behalf to support, or sometimes to punish, the people of God.  There is something here, then, about waiting and watching with an openness to recognising where God is working – even if that is through people and in ways which we do not understand.

This time two years ago, it was becoming clear that one of my close friends was dying of cancer.  He wrote in his last Christmas letter, in words that are also eminently fitted to Advent: “And so this year perhaps we are experiencing Christmas in its real, original meaning, in which the goodness and love of God comes to people who, after long and intensive lives, are now learning what it means to live in darkness and yet receive light.”  For me this is a putting on of the armour of light, a light which shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Let me close with a text by an unknown Christian to which I come back over and over again, and which speaks into times of change and challenge and uncertainty.  Indeed it was used by George VI in his 1939 Christmas broadcast:

I said to the angel who stood at the gate of the new year:  “Give me a light, that I may go forth into uncertainty with sure feet.”  But the angel answered: “Step out into the darkness, and lay your hand in the hand of God. That is better than a light, and surer than a known way.”

And so let us put on the armour of light, lay our hand in the hand of God, and go forward expectantly in hope.

Amen.

[1]    Te Deum, November 2016, S. 110.

[2]    Mark 13:34-36, Luke 12:38-40.

33. Sonntag im Jahreskreis – 13. November 2016

Predigt in der altkatholischen Gemeinde Bottrop

Mal 3, 19-20b
2 Thess 3, 7-12
Lk 21, 5-19

Im Namen des Vaters und des Sohnes und des Heiligen Geistes.

 Sieh der Tag kommt, da werden alle Überheblichen und Frevler zu Spreu.  Für euch aber, die ihr meinen Namen fürchtet, wird die Sonne der Gerechtigkeit aufgehen, und ihre Flügel bringen Heilung.

In diesen letzten Wochen des Kirchenjahrs geht es um die letzten Dinge, um Zeiten der Angst und der Unsicherheit, um Zeiten der Konfrontation, um Zeiten der Entscheidung.  Es geht um Zeiten, die eine gewisse Ähnlichkeit mit dem Hier und Jetzt zu haben scheinen, Zeiten, in denen viele nicht wissen, wie sie die Welt zu verstehen und zu deuten haben.  Oder noch schlimmer, denn im Lukasevangelium warnt Jesus: „Es wird eine Zeit kommen, da wird von allem, was ihr hier seht, kein Stein auf dem anderen bleiben, alles wird niedergerissen werden.“  „Wie werden wir erkennen, dass diese Zeit beginnt?“ fragen die Jünger.  Aber Jesus beantwortet diese Frage nicht, sondern spricht eine weitere Warnung aus: „Gebt Acht, dass man euch nicht irreführt!“

Wir befinden uns gerade in verwirrenden Zeiten: Krieg und Unruhen in Syrien und vielen Gebieten im Nahen und Mittelosten, die viele Flüchtlinge, die den Weg nach Europa versuchen, die Auseinandersetzungen nach der Wahl in Amerika, die Unsicherheiten für uns in Großbritannien (aber vielleicht überhaupt in der EU), wie der Austritt Großbritanniens aus der EU aussehen und welche Folgen er bringen wird, die viele politischen Entwicklungen in Richtung Rechtspopulismus – in Polen, in Österreich, in der Türkei –, die meines Erachtens auf eine tiefe Unzufriedenheit deuten.  Es sind Zeiten, in denen viele der Gegebenheiten, mit denen und in denen ich aufgewachsen bin, zusammenzubrechen scheinen.  Nun möchte ich nicht sagen, dass es nun um das jüngste Gericht geht, aber ich denke trotzdem, dass diese apokalyptischen Texte in unsere Zeit, in unser Hier und Jetzt hineinsprechen.

Es geht in diesen Texten um eine Zeit der Entscheidung.  Entschieden wird, ob wir zu den Überheblichen und Frevlern gehören, oder ob zu den Gerechten, zu denjenigen, die den Namen Gottes fürchten.  In einer Zeit in der nichts so bleibt, wie es war, in der „alles niedergerissen wird“, in der wir Menschen gefragt und geprüft werden, in der Familien gegeneinander kämpfen oder auseinander gerissen werden – in solchen Zeiten müssen wir entscheiden. Entscheiden:  Wann machen wir mit?  Wann sagen wir, Nein – so doch nicht!  Christus schaut auf eine Zeit, in der Viele wegen seines Namens verfolgt werden, festgenommen und vor Gericht stehen. Und er verspricht: „Wenn ihr standhaft bleibt, werdet ihr das Leben gewinnen.“

Verfolgung und Gericht – das sind unangenehme Themen.  Was man aber in den letzten Tagen aus der USA über den Umgang mit schwarzen Menschen, mit Menschen hispanischer Herkunft hört und liest, zeigt, dass wir uns gerade in einer Zeit befinden, in der außerordentlich wichtig ist, wie wir unsere Beziehungen zu anderen Menschen gestalten.  Es läuft gerade in Großbritannien ein Prozess darüber, ob nicht ein Parlamentsakt nötig ist, damit Großbritannien den Artikel 50 zum Austritt aus der EU einschaltet.  Die Richter wurden von manchen Zeitungen als Volksverräter beschimpft, die Frau, die diesen Prozess initiiert hat, steht inzwischen mit ihrer Familie unter Polizeischutz.  Hier scheint es mir sehr wichtig zu sein, deutlich zu sagen, dass ein solcher Zustand nicht akzeptabel, in Deutschland könnte man sagen verfassungswidrig ist.  Aber für uns als Christen ist er nicht nur verfassungswidrig, sondern auch evangeliumswidrig.

Damit will ich nicht verleugnen, dass es Christen und Christinnen – Menschen guten Gewissens – auf allen Seiten gibt – für und gegen Trump, für und gegen Brexit.  Mir ist auch klar, dass viele Menschen, die nicht rassistisch eingestellt sind, für Trump und für Brexit gestimmt haben. Aber nun müssen alle klare Grenzen ziehen. Die Texte, die wir heute lesen, erinnern uns daran, dass unser Glaube nicht (nur) etwas Persönliches, Erbauliches, Nettes ist.  Es geht hier um Leben und Tod – um Leben und Tod jetzt und in dieser Welt, aber auch um ewiges Leben, um ewigen Tod.

Das heißt, es geht darum, uns klar zu machen, dass unser Leben im hier und jetzt Konsequenzen hat – Konsequenzen für das irdische Leben und unsere Gesellschaft, aber auch Konsequenzen für unsere Beziehung zu Gott nach dem Tod, in Ewigkeit.  Die Entscheidungen, die wir in diesem Leben treffen, prägen uns, gestalten uns und unsere Seele, prägen und gestalten das, was in der Zukunft, in der Ewigkeit, aus uns wird, wie wir vor Gott stehen.   Unsere Vorstellung von der Hölle, schreibt der Kirchenhistoriker Eamon Duffy, sagt weniger darüber aus, wozu Gott in der Lage ist, aber sehr viel darüber aus, wozu Menschen in der Lage sind.   Und wir wissen es, wir haben es am eigenen Leib erfahren oder in den Nachrichten gesehen:  Menschen sind zum Bösen fähig, Menschen können ganz furchtbar miteinander umgehen.  Menschen können sich von Gott, vom Göttlichen abwenden – und sie können dies auch im Namen Gottes tun.

Was können wir machen?  Ich denke, wir können, wir müssen glauben, dass die Sonne der Gerechtigkeit aufgeht, dass ihre Flügel Heilung bringen.  In den Unsicherheiten dieser Woche sprach mich bei der Morgenandacht ein Lied besonders an:

Du bist mein Weg, meine Kraft
Der sprudelnde Quell meines Lebens,
du meiner Mühsal Lohn,
mein Schöpfer und guter Lehrer.
Dein Wort ist helles Licht,
lenkt meinen Schritt in Dunkel.

Und auch wichtig ist es, sich selbst klarzumachen, dass die Menschheit, die Weltgeschichte immer wieder schwierige Phasen überstanden hat.  Mitten im Dreißigjährigen Krieg konnte Paul Gerhardt immer noch Lieder und Gedichte schreiben, die seine Zuversicht aussprechen:

Dein Wort, das ist geschehen:
Ich kann das Licht noch sehen,
von Not bin ich befreiet,
dein Schutz hat mich erneuet.

Mitten in der Not weiß Paul Gerhardt, dass er gleichzeitig von der Not befreit ist.  Für mich ähnlich schrieb Silja Walter, Benediktinerin:

Wachen ist unser Dienst.  Wachen.
Auch für die Welt.
Sie ist so oft leichtsinnig,
läuft draußen herum
und nachts ist sie auch nicht zu Hause.
Denkt sie daran, dass du kommst?
Dass du ihr Herr bist und sicher kommt?

Dieser Akzent des nicht Verstehens, des Staunens, der Verzweiflung über die Leichtsinnigkeit der Welt, der Menschheit, auch das spricht mich sehr an.  Ich verstehe gerade nicht, was passiert, aber ich denke, es geht nicht darum zu verstehen, sondern zu schauen, dass ich selbst nicht menschenverachtend und evangeliumswidrig handele, dass ich Vertrauen habe, dass auch in diesen schwierigen, dunklen Zeiten, das Wort Gottes helles Licht ist, das meine Schritte lenkt.  Dass die Sonne der Gerechtigkeit aufgehen wird, und ihre Flügel Heilung bringen werden.

 

Lass uns mit einem Gebet von Huub Oosterhuis schließen:

Gott,
wir fallen und können nicht weiter,
wir sind gelähmt
und außerstande aufzustehen.
Heile uns und richte uns auf
Um deiner Barmherzigkeit willen,
um Jesu willen, der unser Bruder ist.
Ihn hast du aufgerichtet aus dem Tod,
er lebt bei dir
für diese Welt und für alle Zeiten.  Amen

Proper 20 (C) – 18 September 2016

sermon preached at St Mungo’s Alexandria

Jeremiah 8.18 – 9.1
1 Timothy 2.1-7
Luke 16.1-13

Well:  what are we to make of today’s gospel reading?  You may or may not be reassured to know that this question reverberates though the preaching community when this gospel reading comes around.  It is a real challenge: a challenge to understand what is going on here, and a challenge to understand what Jesus is commending, to grasp what we might be being asked to learn from this story.  I am going to offer you a way into it.  I have no idea whether it is what Luke had in his mind when he included this story – you can tell me afterwards what you think, how you would read this story.

In a poem based on this gospel passage, Rick Fry writes:

So,
in this kind of world,
who can blame a manager for being a little shrewd,
especially when shrewdness leads to mercy?
He’s making new friends,
albeit through dishonest means.
But a friend is a friend,
and the burden of a debt lifted
is a special kind of grace.[1]

This poem brings out two key points about the manager’s behaviour.  What he does (and we will come back to the question of just what that is) may be dishonest, but it is also a shrewd response to his situation, and a response in which “shrewdness leads to mercy.”  The people who come to him with large debts on their bills go away with smaller debts.  And, as Rick Fry concludes:

A friend is a friend,
and the burden of a debt lifted
is a special kind of grace.
Is this story, then, perhaps about grace?

Let’s look again at the passage, and let’s begin by thinking about where Luke places it in his gospel.  This story follows on from the story of the prodigal son, which is all about a son who has squandered his inheritance and returns home to his father to beg for mercy – and receives it, even though the elder son doesn’t think that this is entirely fair. The story of the prodigal son follows the two stories of the lost sheep and the widow’s mite, which are both reminders that those who are lost matter in a special way to God.  And what will come next, after a brief episode when the Pharisees take issue with Jesus’s teaching (not surprisingly, perhaps, since they may well be represented by the elder brother in the story of the Prodigal son – and who are they here?), is the story of the rich man and Lazarus, in which it is Lazarus, the poor man, who finds himself in heaven, and the rich man, the upstanding pillar of society, who finds himself in hell.  All these stories are placed in the context of Jesus’s discussion of who is invited to the wedding feast.  And they are introduced by the brief parable of the salt:  “If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” (Luke 14.34)  What we hear today is, I think, to be understood in this context.  Who is invited to the wedding feast?  It is not those whom you might expect.  And what does faith mean?  It means (among other things) alleviating the misery of others.

So is the message to go out and be dishonest?  Well, of course, I don’t think that encapsulates what Jesus is saying.   Erin Dufault-Hunter tells this story:

A friend of mine was a missionary for many years in various parts of Asia. One Sunday while on furlough she told a story about one particular country in which she had worked. The government had forbidden Christians from assembling; indeed, no citizens could have more than one other guest at their apartment at any time to preserve “order.” In defiance of political authorities, believers surreptitiously sought to get around the law; they were determined to meet together for fellowship, prayer, and worship.

Unfortunately, the local policeman saw the staggered comings and goings and figured out that they were gathering. At that point, my friend did what was socially expected in such circumstances: she paid the policeman a bribe. And as long as she kept paying, Christians kept gathering in this apartment for the sustenance for which they longed and for which they risked severe punishment.

When my friend told this story in front of the congregation, she was a bit sheepish – even ashamed – that she had bowed to the dishonest system of payment and the black market economics common in much of the world. My friend Scott – trained by Jesuits with a PhD in philosophy (and the most likely of my Mennonite circle to be canonized if we ever decided to institute the practice) loudly and quickly retorted loudly before the entire congregation, “Ah, well, but what else is money for, really? Seems like a pretty good investment to me.”[2]

A good investment: is that what the steward is being praised for?  He is called dishonest, but is that an accurate description of what is going on here?  Is he perhaps some kind of equivalent to Robin Hood, who stole from the rich, but not for his own benefit?  When we look closely at the story, we find we don’t know very much about the situation.  In particular, we don’t know what happened before; we are not told what (if anything) the steward had been up to.  All we know is that charges were brought against him that he had been squandering his master’s property, and that the master chose to dismiss him on the basis of those charges.  Many commentators assume that he had been making himself rich at the cost of both his master and his master’s tenants, but we don’t actually know that.  Perhaps he had been doing all along what he did next: reducing the bills of his master’s tenants, perhaps by not charging them interest.

What we do know is that he now finds himself in a very difficult situation: he is unable, for whatever reason, to do physical labour, and he does not want to beg.  What is he to do?  (And note that this dilemma suggests that he had not been making himself rich through whatever he was accused of doing, for if he had been, he would have no reason to worry, but could have lived off the wealth he had amassed.)  What he does is this:  he calls in his master’s tenants and reduces their debts.  His actions mean that his master will receive less money, to be sure, and so they are dishonest.  But his actions give the steward a community of friends; a community of people whom he has been able to help.  And that in turn means that his actions have brought relief to others, relief to those whose debts are reduced, have indeed brought, as Rick Fry puts it, to them “a special kind of grace”.

Nancy Rockwell points out that there is a deep resonance here with the Lord’s prayer, especially in the “debtors” version:  “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive the debts of others.”  Forgiving the debts of others is precisely what the steward is doing.  Rockwell writes:

Jesus reminds us that what is fair, according to God, is siding with those who owe and groan under the weight of their debt, not with those whose ledgers are pristine, and who have never shown mercy to a debtor.[3]

And she too puts this story into context:

Zaccheus, a tax collector whose profession was known for its stealing from the poor, was declared by Jesus to be a virtuous fellow when he avowed that he gave 40% of all he got to the poor.

The widow, who could have used her little bit of money to treat herself to a holiday meal, but instead put her coins, all she had, into the poor box, was held up by Jesus as a shining example of generosity.

And the bookkeeper who couldn’t do manual labor, and so helped the poor as insurance against hard times, Jesus declared wise.[4]

Ethially, the third – our story today – is the most complicated, but surely Rockwell is right that there is a pattern here.

We might also ask, who will be given credit for this?  Does the lessening of the people’s debts help only the reputation of the steward, or does it redound to the reputation of the Master too?  The parable does not suggest that the steward takes all the credit, although he is certainly making himself friends.  Do the people whose debts he has lessened go away full of gratitude to the master as well as the steward?

An anonymous blogger (who I think is Meg Gilley, rector of Bensham in the Diocese of Durham) asks a key question: When the steward takes the books to the master to show what he has done, what is the master to do?  And she responds:

He has two options:

He could send another messenger to the debtors and tell them that the steward got it wrong. If he does that, he will make himself very unpopular.
Or, he can remain quiet and accept the situation, with the whole community celebrating his extraordinary generosity.

And that’s what he does.  That is the risk that the steward has taken, that this generous and gracious master would respond with even more generosity and grace.  So the master pays the price for the steward’s salvation.  He praises the steward for his cleverness, for the way he trusted everything to the mercy of his master.  He is not praised for his ethics, but for understanding the nature of the master.  And he was willing to act on his perceptions, which took huge courage.  He dispensed forgiveness to the debtors; he wiped off their debt.  That is what God does for us.[5]

The role of the steward, in this reading, is precisely as a parable for the operation of God’s gift of grace.  This is a reminder, perhaps, that grace, that forgiveness, does not always come through the people or through the methods we might expect.  A reminder perhaps also, that those who are forgiven are not always those whom we might regard as forgivable.  There is a parallel here with the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman, who has to persuade Jesus that she can be forgiven.  Here the steward forgives – and the master then backs him up.  Who are we in this story?  I think probably the people whose debts were reduced.

 

Or are we also the steward?  Is this story also a reminder that we too are called to mediate God’s grace in whatever way we can in the places in which we find ourselves?  Karoline Lewis asks:

How can you proclaim a God who listens to those in need, who sees them, who finds them, who frees them, who wants to have dinner with them, who became flesh for them, who died for them, who rose from the dead for them, who ascended for them, when you live your life as if these truths were not true for you?[6]

For Lewis, what is so significant about this story is that the steward benefits too, just as he benefits others:

Being good to ourselves is not an act of sacrifice or self-care or even self-serving – it is an act of salvation, being and existing in a way that you believe you are saved so as to make possible that others might see God’s salvation is for them.[7]

So let’s look at the steward, not focussing on his dishonesty, but on the way that he offers friendship and relief to those around him:

He’s making new friends,
albeit through dishonest means.
But a friend is a friend,
and the burden of a debt lifted
is a special kind of grace.

Let us too not only accept the gift of our debts being lifted, but also look for ways in which we might lighten the burdens of those around us.

Amen

 

 

[1]  https://rickfry130.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/faith-hope-love-shrewd/.

[2]    http://www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2013/09/what-else-is-money-for/.

[3]    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/the-risks-that-make-you-rich/.

[4]    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/the-risks-that-make-you-rich/.

[5]    https://ramblingrectorbensham.wordpress.com/2016/09/15/the-unjust-steward/.

[6]    http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4713.

[7]    http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4713.

Proper 19 (C) – 11 September 2016

sermon preached at Drumchapel Scottish Episcopal Church

1 Tim 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

When I read today’s gospel reading I found the first verse of Amazing Grace going through my head:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

“I once was lost but now am found” – for the author of this hymn, as for Luke in this passage, being lost and being found is the story of grace.  I was lost – and God found me.

1 Timothy tells a story of being lost and found.  It purports to be by Paul, although 1 Timothy was almost certainly written long after Paul’s death.  “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But … the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”  Here is one who was lost – and who is now found, and who rejoices over it.

But I wonder how we experience being lost.  Probably not as “blasphemers, persecutors, people of violence”?  Timothy goes on – putting words into Paul’s mouth which are found in the Book of Common Prayer as one of the comfortable words:  “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  If we think of sin as that which cuts us off from God, then we may begin to get a better sense of the many ways in which we can be lost, and needing to be found.

Margaret Adam’s book,  Our Only Hope: More than We Can Ask or Imagine,  begins with a sermon: a sermon on hope, preached on a Sunday on which she was deeply depressed, and cut off from God, and could find no conception of what hope might mean.  How can hope speak in a situation of utter hopelessness?  How can hope be heard when all is dark?  Surely this is one kind of lost-ness, one kind of being cut off from God.  Not because we are blasphemers or people of violence, but because we are depressed, or have lost our way.  I suspect that for many of us this is a kind of lost-ness – a cut-off-from-God-ness – that we understand.

In those times in which we experience this kind of lost-ness it can be very hard indeed to believe that God is looking for us, that God would be at all interested in finding us, let alone rejoice.  That sense of being utterly cut off is a part of the experience of being lost.  In those moments it seems that no-one – not even (especially not) God – could possibly be interested.  And yet the good news – the gospel promise – is that he does.  God is reaching out to each of us, even when we cannot see it, even when the darkness with which we are surrounded hides the outstretched hand, even when the fog in which our days seem to lose their way numbs our awareness of God’s presence.   The parable in today’s Gospel reading emphasises that it is not those who seem to conform, who seem to seem to have it all sorted, who are the one to whom God reaches out, but the lost – those who seem furthest from God.  It is the lost whom God searches out, draws in. God’s overflowing grace overflows over them too – and not only those who are in the flock, in safety.

Or who think they are.  For this parable is surely also something of a warning to those who believe they have it all sorted and sewn up.  If it offers to hope to those who feel lost, it might also encourage those who see themselves as the 99 un-lost sheep to contemplate the need for lost-ness.  Dave Lose suggests that people do not always recognise that they are lost, and perhaps might benefit from asking themselves if they are:

  • Might the parents who want their children to succeed so much that they wrap their whole lives around hockey games and dance recitals be lost?
  • Might the career minded man or woman who has made moving up the ladder the one and only priority be lost?
  • Might the folks who work jobs they hate just to give their family things they never had be lost?
  • Might the senior who has a great pension plan but little sense of meaning since retirement be lost?
  • Might the teen who works so hard to be perfect and who is willing to do just about anything to fit in be lost?
  • Might the earnest Christian who is constantly asking whether people have accepted Jesus into their hearts be lost?[1]

There is something here for all of us about recognising our dependence on God, being open to the deeper meaning of our existence.  It is hard in our world, which emphasises our responsibility, requires us to be in control.  Timothy Radcliffe writes that through baptism – and therefore also faith – “we are relieved of the awful burden of pretending to be better than we are.”[2]  Or, as Judy Hirst puts it:

We are not keen to show to God, others or ourselves, the complex reality of who we are.  Most of us, if we are lucky, have a few strong hands to play in life, to show others and to offer.  We basically enjoy playing these ‘strong hands’ to show us off in the best possible light. … [but] it is not always from the places where we feel most confident, where we think we understand, that the deepest growth can occur.[3]

There is a wonderful poem by Charis Doepgen:

One to ninety-nine
that sounds alarming

if the one allows itself to be found
will the ninety-nine
not scatter

total risk
on his part

that is how this looks
to God

for my part
it means hope

whenever I lose my way
he does not give up on me
he will find me[4]

Recognising our lost-ness may be a way of recognising our need for God’s grace – and opening up to that overflowing gift, the overwhelming joy of being found.  This is what Luther and the other Reformers meant when they talked about the relationship between Law and Gospel.  We can never keep God’s law in its entirety, Luther said, and that is precisely the point.  Our recognition of our inability to do what we should – our cut-off-ness from God – our lost-ness – is precisely what makes us aware of our need for grace.

And from that point of view our lost-ness is necessary to coming to faith.  Because we are not and never can be in control.  And coming to faith may allow us to let go of some of wanting to.  Indeed, James Allison suggests that “Once people start relaxing into the gift of faith, they apparently become worse people. Why? Because they are no longer concerned with tidying up their story.”  For faith brings the “loss of a story about how right you are.  You are being given a story about how loved you are. … You are no longer frightened of being seen to be, or actually being, a failure.”[5]

This is not a case of sinning more that the grace might be greater (a theory that Paul frowns on in Romans 6:1!), but more about letting go and letting God.  When I bought a car after several years in Oxford, I several times just set off with the intention of getting lost – driving off the routes that I knew to see where I might end up.  I saw a lot more of the Oxfordshire countryside and its lovely villages than I would have done if I had stuck to the routes and places I knew.  Of course it was a very safe way of getting lost: I had a good map and a satnav which would always get me home even when I had no idea where I was.  But perhaps that is not such a bad parable for the security that God’s grace offers us.  We can get lost safely, because wherever we are, whoever we have come, God’s grace, God’s love, will find us.

“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” asks the psalmist in Psalm 139:

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.

We may feel lost; we may know ourselves to be lost – but in truth we are not.  For God is with us, ready to encounter us where we are, to know us as we are.  “When we were still far off you met us in your Son and brought us home,” as that beautiful post-communion prayer reminds us.  And when he brings us home – he rejoices.  What a gift of love!

Amen.

 

[1]    http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2737-

[2]  Timothy Radcliffe, Taking the Plunge, 160.

[3]  Judy Hirst, Struggling to be Holy, 24-25.

[4]  Te Deum, September 2016, 107 (translation by CM).

[5]   Cited according to Radcliffe, 155.

Gerd Winner Kreuz, Liebenberg

Proper 12 (C) – 24 July 2016

Sermon preached at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Hillington

Genesis 18:20-32
Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-15
Luke 11:1-13

Teach us to pray, said the disciples.  And Jesus said:

Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that 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 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[1]

 We know the Lord’s prayer so well that sometimes it is hard to hear the words – and so perhaps it is helpful to begin with this version, from the New Zealand Prayer Book, which may help us to see the Lord’s Prayer afresh.

Our Father – “Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver, Source of all that is and that shall be, Father and Mother of us all.”  We pray to a Trinitarian God, who creates us and the whole world, the whole universe, who loves us, shares our pain, and sustains us in life.

Our Father in heaven – “Loving God, in whom is heaven.”  Heaven is not distant, out there but here: eternal life is breaking into the here and now, into the world in which we live, with the potential to make of us also heavenly beings whilst yet on earth.

Hallowed be your name – “The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!”  Let our lives be filled with a recognition of God’s glory and goodness.

Your will be done – “Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!”  Let everyone, all things, act according to God’s will.

On earth as it is in heaven – “Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.”  Let God’s order for the world shape our world, our society, and help us to work to bring that about.  Help us to see beyond this moment to a larger picture which is not only about our own needs, our own hopes and our own fears.

Give us today our daily bread – “With the bread we need for today, feed us.”  May we notice and give thanks when our basic needs are satisfied, and may we help to ensure that the basic needs of others are satisfied too, to bring food and clean water to those who are hungry and thirsty, and to feed the world in a sustainable, responsible way.

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us – “In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.”  May we be willing to offer forgiveness and to accept forgiveness.  May we recognise when we have hurt others.  May we seek to live in ways that do not exploit others.

Lead us not into temptation; deliver us from the time of trial – “In times of temptation and test, strengthen us. From trials too great to endure, spare us.”  Help us to know that God is with us in difficult times.  Help us to see how difficult and testing times can bring us new insights, new understanding, to recognise them as important times of growth, however deep our pain.

Deliver us from evil – “From the grip of all that is evil, free us.”  Help us to have the clear sight to recognise evil, and the courage to name it.

For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and for ever – “For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and for ever.”

There is so much in these few short lines we pray so often.  And there is a lot here that resonates with our very imperfect world, our sometimes rather frightening world, our world that seems so often at the moment to be pervaded by hate, by belligerence, by instability.  In the face of the news of attacks and death, we may feel utterly helpless.  Can we do anything at all?

One response to that question is certainly:  we can pray.  But that can sound so trite.  In the face of all the injustice and unpredictability in the world, what good can prayer do?

To offer a response to this question, I think it is worth considering what prayer might mean.  Ten years or more ago, when I was preparing an intercessions workshop. I found an extraordinary reflection on the nature of prayer written by someone called Zoe Hancock.  Let me share with you some of her thoughts:

Prayer is giving something to the people you love. It is an openness of spirit, willingness to go that extra bit, staying up that extra hour or two for a friend in need, or not in need. It is loving.
Each connection to your maker, your partner, your friend is prayer.
The intimacy of knowing your breathing is prayer. To feel the wellness of your soul, your spirit, your body. Expressing and sharing this gift in the present moment. This is prayer.
It is knowing the closeness of water as you swim, and are supported, and held by it. As you turn your head upward for air, as you feel the moment, each breath, each bubble, each stroke, and heartbeat, and movement.
To look upon work colleagues with gentleness and understanding when you haven’t understood a damn thing they’ve just said. To admit you’ve totally missed the point, and laugh at yourself, in kindness. This is prayer.[2]

There is a profound recognition here that prayer is about a rootedness, a sense of self, a sense of understanding how each of us fits into the world and is related not just to ourselves, but to the world in which we live.  Prayer as loving, as active loving, as taking the time to see, to understand where that active loving is needed and how we might be called to live it out.  What Zoe Hancock writes is focused on an immediate community: the people you love, friends and family, colleagues at work.  And that is surely where our prayerful living starts.  But prayer encourages us to widen that circle, to understand that we are called to enlarge our definition of the people we love to encompass those we do not know personally, perhaps do not understand, perhaps have been taught to see as different from ourselves, even as our enemies.

A Palestinian prayer puts it like this:

We pray for peace, with justice, for the wounded and broken-hearted,
and dignity to be restored to all.
Pray not for Arab or Jew, for Palestinian or Israeli.
But pray for yourselves, that you may not divide them in your prayers,
but keep them together in your hearts.[3]

Prayer is a way of coming to help us to understand the needs of those around us, the needs of the world, or perhaps even of simply recognising that we do not understand.  But prayer also offers space to acknowledge our failures of love, our transgressions, the places where we have offered or caused hurt, wittingly or unwittingly, where our lives are indebted to the exploitation of others.

O Lord, how clearly you know
the foolishness of humanity.
No-one has yet been found
who has not transgressed your way
From the first Adam to the present day.
Protect us, save us!
For you, Lord, are far from anger,
full of mercy and righteousness.[4]

 Prayer then, is not a kind of Christmas wish list, not about presenting God with a catalogue of orders, but about understanding more deeply our place in the world that God has created, and the responsibilities that our place gives us.  It is important to remember this as we hear the end of our gospel passage today.  “Ask and it shall be given unto you!”  says Jesus.  “Seek and you shall find.”   And our response may be:  “Really?”  Especially as we remember all our prayers for peace and justice and then look at the world.

But what does “Ask and it shall be given unto you” mean in the context of the Lord’s Prayer?  Sarah Dylan writes:

I find it quite scary to pray that God would treat my sins as I treat debt and other burdens that keep the poorest in poverty.  Is that a prayer I want God to answer?
And when I pray that God’s kingdom would come, and that we each would have daily bread, I can’t help but be a bit nervous wondering whether my prayer will be answered as the rich man’s was – with a friend who, if need be, will expose how shallow my prayers often are if I will not participate in God’s mission to answer them.[5]

But, she says:

I pray nonetheless.  I pray, and I look for opportunities to participate in God’s answering that prayer, in God’s reconciling the divide between rich and poor. … I ask and I seek knowing that it feels risky to do so, and as I do that, I find not only friends … who will hold me accountable to my prayers, but also a God who is generous beyond my asking.[6]

“What can we little people do?” asks Gerald Hughes in Cry of Wonder.  His answer is to know ourselves better.  “Our most valuable source of learning lies in our own experience” and it is through prayer that we understand our own selves.  “The source of our violence does not lie in the existence of hostile external powers, but within ourselves, in our ways of thinking and behaving, in our minds and hearts.”[7]  Hughes points to the undercurrent of language in much human interaction, in much language, and calls us all to contribute to a more peaceful and just society by thinking about how each of us communicates.[8]  This is, he says,

not an instant remedy to finding peace in conflict … slowly it begins to change the way we see things, the way we see other people.  We begin to meet ourselves in them, begin to see them as another self, begin to understand the meaning of “Love your neighbour as yourself,” not as a command, but as a deep need/longing in ourselves which brings us to life, a life we begin to delight in bringing to others.[9]

And this is about prayer, for prayer brings us to recognise that each of us is “a human being, called to play a unique role in creation and to be at one with that power which Dante writes of, the power ‘that moves the sun and other stars,’ the power of Love.  This power is nearer to each one of us than we are to ourselves.”[10]

All this is to say that prayer is about understanding our place in God’s world and discerning what we are called to do where we are.  This weekend I have been part of a celebration of the women’s peace crusade which began in Glasgow on 23 July 1916, when 5000 women gathered to march from George Square to Glasgow Green to protest against the terrible losses of the Great War and to call for peace.  In the midst of the terrible losses of the Somme, those women had a vision of a world at peace, a world in which the carnage that surrounded them could be stopped.

In 1915, Maude Royden had written:  “Truth is more than victory. …  We cannot tell whether defeat or triumph is better for a nation, or whose success upon the battlefield is better for the world.”[11]  She did not know who would win or lose the war, and for here that as not the point.  The point was to find the peace that God wanted to give.  Her call to respond to the war was rooted in the recognition that prayer leads to action:

Many Christians find it hard to believe that they are called upon to enter into a political struggle. … There are times when our fight is the fight of the individual soul, but there are times also when the great forces of Good and Evil are locked in a tremendous struggle, and we are bound, publicly, to take sides.  There was a time for St. Catherine of Siena to tend the sick of her city, and a time for her to heal the sores of Europe, and end the schism of the Church.  There was a time for Joan of Arc to knit and spin in Domremy, and a time for her to lead an army, and save the kingdom of France.  There was a time for Christ Himself to live in Nazareth with His mother; but if He has stayed—in Nazareth? [12]

Prayer will not give us all the answers, but it will give us new understanding and new perspectives.  It will show us, if we let it, what we can do – what we are called to do – to help the world to become what God wants it to be.

Almighty God, Father of us all,
we ask you to inspire the people of this land
with the spirit of justice, truth and love,
so that in all our dealings with one another,
we may show that together we are one in you
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.[13]

 Amen

 

[1]    New Zealand Prayer Book (also online at:  http://loddon-malleeuca.blogspot.co.uk/2016/07/alternative-lords-prayer.html.

[2]    I have been unable to find the source of this text.  Please do contact me if you know it.

[3]    We are US: Prayers for the world (London, n.d.), 51.

[4]    Anaphora of Saint James of Suareg, in: We are US, 50.

[5]    Online at: http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2007/07/proper-12-year-.html.

[6]    Online at: http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2007/07/proper-12-year-.html.

[7]    Gerald Hughes, Cry of Wonder: Our own real identity (London 2014), 241-242.

[8]    Hughes, Cry of Wonder, 242-245.

[9]    Hughes, Cry of Wonder, 244.

[10] Hughes, Cry of Wonder, x-xi.

[11] Maude Royden, The Great Adventure: The Way to Peace (London 1915), 16.

[12] Maude Royden, May Mission Speeches (London 1913), 7.

[13] Anglican Church of Southern Africa Prayer Book; in We are US, 50.