Sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, July 24, 2016

Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C
July 24, 2016
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler

Hosea 1:2-10; Psalm 85; Colossians 2:6-19; Luke 11:1-13

There’s a reason I asked Karen to put that particular image on the front of the bulletin this morning – you’ve probably figured out that it is Arabic in beautiful calligraphy, and, given the Gospel we just read, you may have also figured out by now, if you hadn’t already picked it up with the clue of the caption, “Lord, teach us to pray,” that it is, in fact the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, the one we call “The Lord’s Prayer.”

I’ve heard that religious leaders have always been asked to help people learn how to pray, over the centuries, over millennia – though in my personal experience, it’s a tradition that seems to have fallen by the wayside, wink wink.  Never mind, I’ll tell you anyway. 

What’s the first prayer you ever learned?  Do you remember?  The one I remember from my earliest childhood went like this:  “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.  God bless Mommy and Daddy and Seth (my brother) and Dorothy (who was our cat) and Holly (my BFF at the time), and Smoo-Poo-Doo.”  Um, Smoo-Poo-Doo was the name of my panda bear.  Obviously, I was a child of limited imagination – my stuffed giraffe was called “Long Neck,” and my stuffed lion was called “Lion.”

But I digress.

Looking back on that bedtime prayer, it strikes me now as a little creepy – “if I should die before I wake?”  What was that about?

This prayer must go back years, to a time when dying in one’s sleep could happen at a much younger age than it generally does now.  I never thought about it as a child, but in my grandparents’ generation, it did, and in the centuries before that it did; it was fairly frequent that one or more children would die before they were a year old.

So that was my first prayer.  I think my second prayer was the one we read at practically every church service – the Lord’s Prayer.

“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.  Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us , lead us not into temptation, and deliver us from evil.”

We’ve been saying this same prayer since the 16th century – changing the pronunciation and the spelling somewhat along the way, but we’ve been saying it for so long that very few can contemplate changing the language at all.  We are offered, in the Episcopal Church, an alternative wording, and I remember that I tried to introduce it when I first came here – an experiment that lasted about a month or so, before I gave up.

Why is this prayer so central to our faith?  Is it only because Jesus taught it – which would certainly be a reason to keep it – or is it also because it really does practically everything that a prayer should do?  That is, to recall to us the centrality in our lives of our relationship with God.

It’s not a distant God, a far off and unapproachable God.  This God is our Father.  Creator.  Majesty.  All-mighty.  Gracious.  FATHER.

Now perhaps not everyone feels comfortable speaking of God as father; perhaps some of us did not have the best possible relationship with our own biological father, and the imagery of God as father may bring anger and pain and stress and even fear to some of us.

It can be a leap to put the one image of an unsatisfactory human father to one side, and to try to conjure up the image of an all-loving, caring, supportive, affirming, welcoming father in heaven.

And where is heaven?  Is it “up there” or is it somehow to be found inside ourselves, or in one another, or in a quiet corner of the garden or in some magnificent natural setting?  Jesus “ascended” to sit at the right hand of the Father, and promises to come “with the clouds” at the end of the age.

And where is this place that God’s will is done there in such a way that we desire it to be done here, on earth, among us?

What is “daily bread”?  Theologians have been trying to define it since the beginning – is it basic nutrition, is it the sacrament?  Is it only bread, or is it food enough in wondrous variety?  Is it “whatever is necessary” for our hunger to be satisfied – and is that just bodily hunger or might it be our hunger for justice?

I know, this sermon is less an explanation than a list of questions.  And the questions go on –

Forgive us our trespasses (or trespasses, as people around here tend to say) as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Does that mean we are asking God to forgive us only if we forgive others?  What if we can’t forgive?  How do we learn to forgive when some trespasses are seriously worse than others?  Can we only be forgiven if we forgive IS or the Taliban or Al Qaeda or our next-door neighbor who parties every weekend till 3 in the morning?

We could have a long discussion of forgiveness and still not explore everything that might be said.  But the prayer makes clear we have to try to forgive others who hurt or harm or injure us.  Our soul’s own health seems to depend on it.  Dicey, isn’t it?  Difficult, for certain.

Or does it merely mean, we are forgiven in the way we forgive – which is just as bad, really, because sometimes we’re not really good at it.

And how do we square this thought with the knowledge, found elsewhere in scripture, that when we repent of things we have done or not done, and return to the Lord, that we receive forgiveness?  We will do that in just a few minutes; it’s a given in the liturgy.  I will stand up and say “Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ …”

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  Why would God ever lead us into temptation?  It makes no sense.  The new translation of the prayer says, “Save us from the time of trial.”  Does that help? 

Jesus said to his followers and to those who questioned him, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Sometimes we are tested beyond our ability to cope, or survive – by life events, by suffering, by illness or by death.  I don’t hold with the idea, so often expressed, that God never gives us more than we can bear – this isn’t in the Bible.  But I also don’t hold with the idea that God purposefully sends suffering and pain – the world can do that all on its own, and frequently does.  The hope I cling to when that happens is that God is present with us in suffering and pain – the literal meaning of the word compassion is “suffering with.”  We are never alone in our suffering, even if we are not aware of the presence of God.

So when we ask not to be tempted or to be saved from the time of trial, I think it means we are asking that we never have to face temptation or trial alone.  And by saying this prayer in our daily round, we are as much reminding ourselves of what God has promised as we are asking God to be faithful to that promise.

“Deliver us from evil.”  Or, as some have it, “Deliver us from the Evil One.”  We are sometimes told that evil surrounds us on every side and we have to be strong and resist it.  And in some sense, there is truth here – but we are also surrounded by great beauty and wonder and hope and opportunity, and by resisting even the message that the only thing around us is evil, we are resisting evil.  Things that are evil can work to destroy our hope, to have us in despair, to have us give up.  But again, the promise of God to be with us is remembered in this plea, and the faithfulness of God gives us hope that whatever evil there is, will in the end have no power over us.

In this prayer, we remember who God is to us, we acknowledge God’s authority not just “there” but here.  We voice our confidence that God will teach and lead us into the right ways, will provide what we need, will teach us and lead us into the cleansing act of forgiveness, will be with us in trouble and strife, and will give us power to overcome whatever evil there is in the world.

I know there are other forms of prayer – not just the bedtime prayer I learned as a child, but meditation and weeping and singing and rejoicing, as well as silence and waiting, and prayers for healing and prayers for peace and reconciliation and understanding.  They’re all fine examples of the art of prayer.  They find their roots in the Lord’s prayer, in the promises God has made to us in the words of that prayer.

But sometimes we pray that God will do what we want, or give us what we desire, or smite our enemies, or “fix those people,” or whatever we think is most desirable.  These prayers are not a good fit with the prayer Jesus taught, because they aren’t about God’s will being done, but ours.

My advice, then, is whenever you pray, begin with the Lord’s prayer, carrying your concerns in your heart.  Pray it slowly, linger over the phrases, consider what the words mean, and fit your own prayers into it as a framework.  And, as you finish, say, “Not as I will but as you will.”

And then sit and wait in stillness, seeking the presence of God.  Let go all the anxious thoughts and fearful forebodings that you can. 

Wait.

Wait.

Breathe, say “thank you” and “amen,” and get up and go on with your day.

In the name of God….

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