A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
Sunday 5 September 2021, 16:30, Choral Evensong, The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
Reading: Matthew 6: 1-18
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Some words you may find embedded in your memory:
Always use the Green Cross Code,
‘Cos I won’t be there when you cross the road.
The catchphrase of road safety superhero the Green Cross Code Man, a.k.a. actor David Prowse (who went on to play that other health and safety icon, Darth Vader). Or you may be old enough to remember Fanta the Elephant, and this advice for walking along country lanes:
Keep to the right and you’ll never go wrong,
You’ll see what’s coming along.
Words to remember and reach for when you need them. They might even save your life.
We’ve heard some words twice in this service (once read, once sung) that may be embedded even deeper in your memory; or, if you’re new to faith, you may have the privilege of hearing them fresh: ‘Pray like this,’ says Jesus to his disciples, and gives them what we know as the Our Father or the Lord’s Prayer.
Those who have gone deeply into the things of the soul urge us make it our own. The Methodist spiritual writer Neville Ward says we should use the Lord’s Prayer, ‘over and over again, working our way into its depths of meaning, putting up with the times when it means nothing at all but a familiar jingle’. Why? Because ‘it holds all that anybody needs to know…A voice speaks in it that is beyond this world, yet intimately associated with all this world's pain and pleasure.’
He quotes the poet Edwin Muir, returning to the Lord’s Prayer after many years and discovering that
meaning after meaning sprang from it, overcoming me again with joyful surprise; and I realized that this simple petition was always universal and always inexhaustible, and day by day sanctified human life
and Simone Weil, the French mystic:
[The Our Father] is to prayer what Christ is to humanity. It is impossible to say it once through, giving the fullest possible attention to each word, without a change, infinitesimal perhaps but real, taking place in the soul.
The prayer starts with God. ‘Duh,’ you may say, but – those very things that make me want to pray, my needs, can become a block to prayer, because launching straight into my worries, my longings, can turn into me just talking to myself. So I need to start with God.
This prayer of prayers calls God Father – an image for God, we must remember, not a definition. Applying a human image to the Creator of the universe is a sign that we share with the one true God a world of meaning which our Maker wants us to explore. And this exploration we do when we pray.
Next the prayer asks for God’s kingdom to come. Jesus has begun his ministry by proclaiming the Kingdom of God, and begins his prayer with longing to see it, God’s sovereign purpose of love come to birth on earth. That is the context in which our needs will best be met. And so to us.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us.
Jesus’ God is not the neurotic tyrant of atheist fantasies but a friend and lover whom we can ask for things, as Martin Luther said about this part of the prayer, ‘everything necessary for the preservation of this life’: food, money, relief, forgiveness. Not only for me, though. It’s our bread, and forgiveness for us.
The prayer ends in sober realism. Our popular version of the Lord’s Prayer says, ‘ Lead us not into temptation’. Temptation now carries associations of flirting, chocolate cake and one for the road, whereas the original word describes a crisis, a time of testing that Jesus believed was coming upon the world. He would face that trial, but his followers could pray to be spared it.
Catch the six o’clock news this evening and you will not be short of contemporary candidates for the ‘time of trial’ in the lives of people, nations, the world, the planet. If we are to follow a crucified Messiah we should have no illusions about enjoying diplomatic immunity from these trials of life, but Jesus’ prayer permits us – urges us – to pray that most human of prayers, to be spared the worst. Did not Jesus do the same on the night before he died?
Words to remember and reach for when you need them. They might even save your soul. So let us give them our ‘fullest possible attention’, and let God lead us into the spaces these words contain. Let us pray.
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done;
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.
Note Quotations are from J Neville Ward, The Use of Praying Epworth Press