Luke 11:1-13, Year C, 7th Sunday after Pentecost
(*names changed for privacy)
Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a young woman. Life had been difficult for her. Her first husband had gone and she yearned for a new start. She wondered if life would provide it.
Now, the woman’s brother had left home many years before and had moved to a distant country where he worked among foreigners providing them with food. Knowing this, and in search of her new start, the woman decided to risk everything. She set out for the distant country and to join her brother. Many miles she traveled and when finally, she reached that country she went and stayed with her brother.
One day she went to her brother’s place of work and there she caught the eye of one of the other workers, a foreigner. As time passed the two fell in love and in time they were married. And in that distant land God blessed them with children and what had begun as sadness ended with joy.
Does anyone recognize that story comes from? When I first heard it it reminded me of several stories in the Bible: I thought of Ruth the Moabitess traveling to distant Israel and meeting Boaz; I thought of Rebecca living with her brother Laban in Aram and one day meeting Abraham’s servant at a watering hole who invited her to travel back with him to meet and marry Isaac.
But it’s not their story: whose story is it Sarah*? It’s your story isn’t it? Traveling from Brazil to make a new start in life; meeting your future husband David in xxxx restaurant in xxxx where he was working with your brother. And today we celebrate the second blessing of that relationship as we bring Charlie to baptism.
I’ve told Sarah’s story that way because it introduces the idea of overlapping narratives. I want to suggest that to become Christian is to choose to allow our stories to overlap with God’s story, like bringing together the two lenses of a pair of binoculars to create a single overlapping view. In Jesus we claim that the human and the divine lenses overlap perfectly.
To become Christian is to allow the same thing to happen in our lives. And we find that as God’s focus and ours come ever closer, ever more overlapping, so our lives start to resemble Jesus’: his habits become ours; his way of seeing and responding to the world becomes ours. We become Christian – a journey which starts a baptism and continues, if we choose, for the rest of our lives.
In this morning’s Gospel we hear about how Jesus gave us a prayer. It’s a condensed form of Jesus’ views of and response to God. He gives it to us so that it might become our view of God and our way of responding to God, so that it might help in bringing the two lenses closer together. It’s a very short prayer and I’m going to use it to sketch out what a Christian life might look like. We begin with:
Jesus refers to God with the metaphor ‘father’ for the ancient world believed that the male body provided the active ingredients for life and the female body merely incubated it. With the advent of genetics we know that view is flawed. We could, then, if we wanted, begin our prayer ‘our Mother’, or avoid gender entirely: ‘our Creator’, ‘our Source’.
Whatever title we use, the first of two things we learn is that Jesus views the source of the Universe not as a random product of chance, but the creation of someone or something that he can relate to in a loving way. To pray ‘our Father’ is to start by remembering that life is meant to be a good gift and neither a random mistake nor a meaningless curse.
Second, we learn that God is common to us all: our Father. The prayer we make is not a private one for with God there are no favourites. Civilizations in the past would often talk about royalty as having a special relationship with God. Some Roman Caesars called themselves the sons of God.
But Jesus’ prayer is democratic: all of us are the beloved children of God, all of us together bear the imprint of God’s image: rich and poor; titled and homeless; educated and illiterate; gay and straight. Whatever divisions we think exist, all of them are over-ridden by a shared relationship with God. Jesus teaches us not to forget this in the first line of his prayer.
Hallowed be your name.
The second line of Jesus’s prayer is about focus: may your name God, your identity be kept holy: kept special. You not me.
I would like to think myself God – I often behave as if I were. Ego can easily take over. But Jesus’ focus is on God and so ours should be. Even though each of us does have remarkable and unique gifts that we should boast about, that we should celebrate and encourage – still, in the end, God is God, not us. The position of divinity is taken and we need not apply.
This second line reminds us that we can lose perspective if we try to control our lives and the lives of others as if we were ultimately in charge. Our powers and our gifts, beautiful and remarkable though they are, are limited. Jesus reminds us to be human, no more and no less, and to make peace with our fragile, limited, wonderful lives. In the end we are like a flower of the field. Only God is God.
Your kingdom come.
Again, the emphasis on your is important. I remember once I almost caused the former Conservative MP for East Reading to fall off his seat. It was during an informal surgery and in conversation with him I pointed out that as a Christian my first loyalty was not to Britain – it was to God’s kingdom. I don’t think he’d heard this before; I think he might even have thought it treasonous!
There are many things to celebrate about Britishness – or whatever culture we come from (even Brazil). But Jesus’ prayer reminds us to keep hold of a bigger vision.
We know from Jesus’ parables what Jesus thought God’s kingdom looks like: it’s a topsy-turvy kingdom where social inequalities are rectified; where the last become first; where those who feel lost and left behind are found and treasured; where justice is given equally.
It’s a vision of multinational corporations paying as much tax as the local corner shop; of kids in comprehensive schools having as much of chance as kids in Eton of making it into Number 10; of rich societies sharing wealth rather than putting walls around it; of a world in which rubber dinghies are for playing in not for crossing oceans in search of a better life.
And, of course, to pray for this kind of kingdom to come is to live with discontent. And it may well mean for us to choose to be part of its coming through campaigning.
Give us each day our daily bread.
From the heights of kingdoms in the next sentence we come down to bread. And it may come as a surprise that the word translated ‘daily’ doesn’t actually mean that.
The best guess is that the word Jesus used originally meant something like ‘bread for tomorrow’: ‘provide us with enough for tomorrow’ – just enough. We might recall the story of the Hebrews having been freed from Egypt wandering through the wilderness collected manna for the following day, but no more… Jesus is asking us to imagine living like that.
To ask for our daily bread is therefore a reminder against trying to live grandiose lives of consumption – it is pray to remain humble. That humility is all the more important as we know the consequences of our habits of consumption on the environment.
And we can add to this what we are learning from positive psychology: one of the most successful forms of treatment for depression and anxiety is mindfulness. Mindfulness involves drawing our attention away from the past or the future and focusing instead on the simple here and now: living life now and valuing life now rather than
being caught up in anxiously trying to control the future or re-write the past.
In teaching us to pray for our daily bread Jesus asks us to focus on the now and its basic needs, to live simply and richly with depth.
Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
There is much to say here. I know that forgiveness is not easy. I have worked with people who are in the midst of ongoing situations of violence or abuse in which they have felt guilty for not forgiving, and I have had to warn them against rushing too quickly to forgive.
In such cases to forgive without truth-telling and without repentance on the part of the abuser might not be real forgiveness but might lead to worse harm. True forgiveness involves the restoration of good relationships not the covering over of bad ones, and it can rarely be rushed.
But if we leave those hard situations aside, to link our own forgiveness with the forgiveness of others is simply to remember that we live in community. I may think I am special but in fact I screw up just as much as the next person, and so I must learn to grant others as much dignity and respect as I would like to be granted.
It turns out that none of us is the centre of the Universe. Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness keeps our egos in check and, indeed, promises more than that: for to choose to cultivate forgiving and asking for forgiveness can be hugely liberating. It can move seemingly intractable situations on: it can bring new life. And finally:
Do not bring us to the time of trial.
The conventional translation has ‘lead us not into temptation’ which might give the mistaken impression that we’re asking God not to deliberately place us in harm’s way. Pope Francis is currently encouraging Catholics to revise their translation to avoid such an in impression.
To pray ‘Keep us from the time of trial’ is simply to ask ‘keep us safe’. It is, in the end, a prayer of letting go, of placing ourselves into God’s hands. Because people who are not anxious about their security, who learn to let go, are safer: for themselves and for others.
How should we use the Lord’s Prayer? I suggested earlier that becoming Christian is like bringing the lenses of a pair of binoculars together – allowing God’s life and ours to overlap. We might choose to use the Lord’s Prayer in help this process. We might pray it daily or even several times a day (perhaps setting a reminder on our phones); we might say it slowly in our heads, thinking through the meaning of the words so that little by little we might become more Christ-like:
Good source of all Life
hallowed be your name
Help me not to lose sight of you
Your kingdom come
Your vision inspire me
Give us our daily bread
Help me to live simply
Forgive us our sins
Help me to live in community
Do not bring us to the time of trial
Help me, God, to let go.
Image Credit. Edward Hopper The Conversation (1927)