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Town Centre Churches

Sermon – The Lord’s Prayer

A bus driver and a rector were standing in line to get into heaven. The bus driver approached the gate and St. Peter, our patron,  said, “Welcome, I understand you were a bus driver. Since I’m in charge of housing, I believe I have found the perfect place for you. See that mansion over the hilltop? It’s yours”.

The rector heard all this and began to stand a little taller. He said to himself, “If a bus driver got a place like that, just think what I’ll get.”

The rector approached the gate and St. Peter said, “Welcome, I understand you were a town centre rector. See that shack in the valley?”

St. Peter had hardly got the words out of his mouth when the shocked rector said, “I was a rector - of your church too, St Peter’s! Doesn’t that count for anything? I preached the gospel, I helped teach people about God. Why does that bus driver get a mansion, and I get a shack?”

Sadly St. Peter responded, “Well, it seems when you preached, people slept. When the bus driver drove, people prayed.”

Prayer can be seen as a last resort, when all else has failed ~ when you’re in danger, as with that bus-driver! Indeed, at a low level, prayer can be seen as a very poor substitute for doing something practical.

I heard a story of a ship that was sinking in the middle of a storm, and the captain called out to the crew and said, “Does anyone here know how to pray?”

One man stepped forward and said, “Yes sir, I know how to pray.”

The captain said, “Wonderful, you pray while the rest of us put on life jackets–we’re one short.”

Well, Luke’s Gospel records that’s not how it was for Jesus,  for whom prayer was as natural as eating or drinking, and he would often go off by himself to pray.  His disciples instinctively knew this was a right and necessary human thing to do, and he slipped into praying so easily, so they asked him, didn’t they, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

Countless millions of people have been brought closer to God by praying as Jesus did, “Our Father ….”

The twentieth century poet, Edwin Muir, tells how he was in inner turmoil in March 1939, for two reasons.  For the second time in his life the world was threatened with a terrible war; and also his wife, with whom he had translated several works of Franz Kafka, was seriously ill.  Muir found himself returning to a prayer he had learned as a boy, and it came alive with fresh power.  He describes his experience:

“Going to bed alone, I suddenly found myself (I was taking off my waistcoat) reciting the Lord’s Prayer, in a loud, emphatic voice  – a thing I had not done for many years – with deep urgency and profound and disturbed emotion.  When I went on I became more composed; as if my soul had been empty and craving, and were now being replenished, it grew still; every word had a strange fullness of meaning which astonished and delighted me.  It was late; I had sat up reading; I was sleepy; but as I stood in the middle of the floor, half undressed, saying the prayer over and over again, meaning after meaning sprang from it , overcoming me again with joyful surprise; and I realised that that simple petition was always universal and always inexhaustible, and day by day sanctified human life.”

In our first reading, Hosea used the metaphor of God as ‘husband’ to a people who were unfaithful to him. Later, in chapter 11, Hosea introduced the tender metaphor of loving parents patiently bringing up their children.  This involved teaching the children to walk (by using a kind of harness), hugging them, kissing them and feeding them.  The prophet portrays God’s gentle, parental activity as follows:

“It is I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them in my arms.  But they did not know that I secured them with reins and led them with bonds of love, that I lifted them like a little child to my cheek, that I bent down to feed them.”  (Hosea 11: 3-4)  No passage in the Old Testament goes beyond this one in expressing God’s tender care for his rebellious children. This is the depth of fatherly and motherly care, deeply embedded in the Jewish understanding of God’s relationship with his people, that led, naturally, to Jesus addressing God as ‘Daddy’, Abba ~ our Father.  It is an intimate and deeply trusting form of address to God that Jesus shares with us, and it binds us together, as we say “ ‘our’ Father”, inclusively, with the rest of the human race.

Peter Steele, a university chaplain in Melbourne, wrote:

“Thousands of Christians … have over the centuries appealed to Father, Son and Holy Ghost, while doing dreadful things to one another. At such moments, the attempt to seize on God as a partisan Lord is pathological. The word ‘our’, in such contexts, is symptomatic of a mortal disease.”

Of course, in the ‘Our Father’, the word ‘our’ runs in exactly the opposite direction, in a radically inclusive and mutually caring direction.  Abba, the Father of all men and women, is utterly inclusive.

First, all human beings can call God ‘Father’, because he is their creator.  Second, Jews should call God ‘Father’, because they are God’s chosen people, released from slavery in Egypt. Third, Christians call God their ‘Abba’ on the basis of their faith in Christ and baptism.  Hence, in the early church, part of the initiation process for prospective converts included learning the Lord’s Prayer; which they were only allowed to pray with the community for the first time in the eucharist following their baptism.

Now, that’s spent several minutes just touching on the first two words!  They are very important words.  So is the rest of the prayer, not least, praying for the coming of God’s Kingdom of peace, justice and values rather different to what we find both around us, and within us.  More sermons on these things to come~ and, indeed, I’m producing a little book on it next year ~ watch this space.

For today, let me end with this whimsical story:

Three ministers were talking about prayer in general and the appropriate and effective positions for prayer. As they were talking, a telephone repairman was working on the phone system in the background. One minister shared that he felt the key was in the hands. He always held his hands together and pointed them upwards as a form of symbolic worship. The second suggested that real prayer was conducted on your knees. The third suggested that they both had it wrong–the only position worth its salt was to pray while stretched out flat on your face.
By this time the phone man couldn’t stay out of the conversation any longer. He interjected, “I found that the most powerful prayer I ever made was while I was dangling upside down by my heels from a power pole, suspended forty feet above the ground.”

Yes ~ situations like that do focus the mind; but we have learned from Jesus that praying to God, ‘Our Father’, as he did, ought to be a relaxed and natural daily part of our lives.

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