When you pray

A sermon for the Church of the Epiphany, Year C Proper 12. The lectionary readings include Luke’s narration of Jesus’ introduction of the Lord’s Prayer to his disciples.

This was the prayer that first made me fall for Jesus, when I was a child. Of course, I learnt the expanded form that we use in worship; the one that we prayed, hands together, eyes closed, every morning at school assembly time (never at home). But even in its stripped down, barest form, as Luke presents Jesus teaching it, the world which this prayer conjures into being is enough to set my spirit on fire.

Your kingdom come.

This, for me, is the heart and soul of the vision that Jesus creates with his prayer, the world in which his prayer is completed.

Jesus came preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” The foundation of his prayer is this petition, that God complete the establishment of that kingdom.

A kingdom in which everyone is fed, and has enough to eat. In which second chances are granted. Where penury is unheard of, because instead of owing one another, we forgive one another. We work it out. We work together. A kingdom in which there are no dirty tricks, no deceit, no hidden obstacles to trip a person up and try her faith. There is no need for all of that, when everyone has enough, and all are cared for, and repentance is a normal, every day activity.

As a child, focused on fairness (the worst indictment a child can offer is, “but that’s not fair!”), the justice enacted in this kingdom was clear to me. As a child, one is powerless, always in debt to others for her life, her food, her family. This prayer, with its direct address to the Father, affirmed my dignity in the world order of God’s kingdom. As a child, often confused by the state of the world and the actions of others, the promise of a straightforward, uncrooked regime offered me safety. The buzz words of love, grace, faith, hope do not feature in this prayer; but the world that it envisions is one crafted by those gospel values that first made me fall in love with God, and with Christ Jesus.

Thy kingdom come.

If you were to take the Book of Common Prayer from the pew pocket in front of you, and read it from front to back, skipping the calendar charts, perhaps, and the historical documents, but checking every single form of worship offered for prayer together, I challenge you to find one that omits the Lord’s Prayer. I’m not saying that you won’t find any orders in which you could technically get away without it, but you’d be hard pressed to deny the intent of our common life to stay close to the directions that Jesus gave to his disciples: “When you pray, say this.”

So what, we might reasonably ask, is the purpose of praying the same words over and over again, every time we come together, and often when we are apart, day in and day out, till kingdom come?

A few months ago, I reviewed a book by Derek Penwell called, Outlandish: An Unlikely Messiah, A Messy Ministry, and the Call to Mobilize, published by Chalice Press. Penwell examines this prayer of Jesus and posits that as much as it calls upon God to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth, it is also designed to galvanize us towards action. Think about it: why, after asking God to forgive our sins, would we add a line in our own prayer about forgiving those who owe us? Penwell argues that we are begging for freedom from economic oppression, the systems of debt and exploitation that have kept us from loving our neighbours freely. He offers that when we ask God to deliver us from the time of trial, we are begging quite literally for freedom from our present and oppressive systems of injustice.

“Of course [I concluded in my review], the implication is that if we are asking God to deliver us from systems that we the people have organized around ourselves (or one another, or just those others), then we had better get to work answering our own prayers, with God’s help.”

In other words, instead of ticking off what life owes us, we might examine our conscience for which sins we still need forgiven.

We might consider, while praying for our own daily bread, who is feeding our neighbour’s children.

We might wonder whether the scaffold of our legal system is really so robust and so righteous and reaches so far towards the heavens that we have every right to sit in the Almighty’s judgement seat and consign individuals to die, and to execute them; or whether we are building ourselves a Babel tower. “Save us from the time of trial,” indeed.

We pray to repent, as Jesus taught us, because the kingdom of God is at hand.

Last week, we talked about taking care whose vision of the world we chose to follow towards glory; about choosing to invest ourselves in that which is loving, liberating, life-giving. Once again this week, we read in the epistle to the Colossians the warning, Take care not to become captivated by worldly philosophies that lead to ruin. Do not invest in empty promises.

As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. (Colossians 2:6-7)

Stay rooted in the life of Jesus, and bring forth the fruit of Christ’s kingdom.

The story that Jesus tells right after teaching us this prayer, at least according to Luke, reminds us that the plant cannot produce fruit unless it exists in an ecosystem that pollinates it; one that is cooperative and collaborative.

In the kingdom of God, the absolute duty of one man to offer hospitality to the unexpected guest is matched by the duty of his neighbour to help him out, when he is short of the resources to meet his obligations. Even in the dead of night, when no other help is in sight, and the world is sleeping, these friends meet in a circle of giving, receiving, and loving the stranger. The values of sharing daily bread, forgiving what is lacking, resisting the temptation to fall back to sleep and ignore the needs of a neighbour are illustrated against the backdrop of darkness.

This, perhaps, is the point of our constant, almost redundant repetition of this prayer every single day: to train us, like vines, to stay close to the root and shoot of Jesus; to produce the fruit of the kingdom of God.

But if it achieved nothing else, the idea that this prayer could cause a child to fall in love with God may be enough. Because, in the kingdom of God that Jesus and the prophets describe, even the child who is named without pity, Lo-ruhamah, finds consolation; and even the child who is “not my people” Lo-ammi, finds a home:

and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God,” (Hosea 1:10b)

when the kingdom of God is revealed, and God’s will is done on earth, as it is in heaven, and God’s Name, the name of Love, is hallowed through all our worlds.

Derek Penwell, Outlandish: An Unlikely Messiah, A Messy Ministry, and the Call to Mobilize, (Chalice Press, 2018)

Also in the background: The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9: Luke-John (Abingdon Press, 1996)

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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