The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r184.htm
s184g98 Somerton Park Sunday 17 26/7/98
"Lord, teach us to pray" Luke 11.1
I had a phone call during my week off asking for prayers for Ireland and the particularly difficult situation in Portadown. This came as a result of my association with the Mothers Union, not because someone thinks my prayers are particularly effective ! :-) We have all been made aware of the situation in the news, and I had been trying not to think about it at all, so the request was rather unwelcome. It was not just that I was on holidays - I really didn't know what to think about the situation, let alone how to pray. It would be presumptuous of me in the extreme to pontificate on who is right and who is wrong in this situation on the other side of the world, but the request brought home to me starkly the impossibility of praying to get God to change someone else's mind.
Last week, I talked about Martha wanting Jesus to get Mary to help her with her ministry - to change Mary's perception of what was important. Jesus was unwilling to do this and in reality, unable to do it either.
It is quite clear that God does not want the killing to continue in Ireland - we don't have to convince him (or her) about that. The convincing that has to be done is, it seems, to a very small minority of people. But of course this principle has much wider applicability than just Ireland.
In Australia we have our own difficulties between racial and ethnic communities - and they are no less damaging than that in Ireland. The only difference is that in Ireland the scales are pretty evenly balanced between the combatants and so the conflict is protracted, bloody and public. In Australia the balance between the aboriginal and those of Anglo Celtic extraction is very much tipped "our" way. Simply because of this imbalance and we in the majority are "in the right" of course - conflict is limited and hidden - and most importantly it doesn't affect "us". It has been still bloody - though it is of course others who have been marginalised and killed - that is why it is hidden.
The readings today focus on prayer, one of St Luke's particular passions.
The reading from Genesis, Abraham bargaining on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, is quaint in the extreme. We should be very careful that we don't let the quaintness blind us to some of the facts of life. We need to make it plain that it is quite blasphemous to suggest that Abraham is more merciful than God. In my life in the Church, and particularly when we pray on Good Friday for those who do not believe in God or Christ, I have noticed that the prayers get very close to suggesting that we are more merciful than God. If our prayers betray any hint that we are asking God to be merciful on others - that we are prepared to excuse when God has to be begged to do so - then we are presumptuous and mistaken. I would use stronger language but this is a church ...
The reading from St Luke makes our relationship with God on much more correct ground. We need not get too concerned with the statement of Jesus "you, who are evil ..." The whole stress is on the abundance of good gifts that God gives to those who ask him - evil or not. All the good gifts - the patience, the prodigious generosity, the forgiveness and the love are all God's, and it is God's good pleasure to shower them on us. It is we who are loath to share them around...
God is prodigious in giving - whether we are "worthy" or not or even whether we will use the gifts wisely or not. I mean if I was to win the lottery, I would probably invest a substantial proportion of it "for a rainy day". Simple prudence would say this was a good idea. Yet I rather wonder if God would not have us give it all away - spend it on ourselves even - so that those from whom we bought might also share in our good fortune?
It is, I think noteworthy that Luke recalls that it is the disciples who ask Jesus to teach them to pray. Jesus didn't ever suggest they should pray, or pray more. I remember the Confirmation "Rule of Life" - the first was "to be present at Divine Worship every Lord's Day, and to pray daily ..." It's a bit like saying: "You must breathe". Of course we pray - everyone prays, even, I suspect, the most devout atheist. There is no end to the prayers we say to God, even by some who doubt God exists anyway. People do not need to be told that they can pray. God has an endless stream of prayers without us encouraging others to pray more.
Jesus encourages us to ask rightly and for right things. We are encouraged to ask for help for us to help another in need. It is us who have the friend who arrives at midnight and find us with the bare cupboards. God will supply our importunity, it is we who have to be convinced that we want our importunity to be supplied, so that we can be bothered to help another.
And God will supply that which is beyond us to supply. It is God's pleasure to give the Holy Spirit - we aren't expected to find that gift from our own resources.
The trick in prayer is to hear what God has to say.
If we hear little in reply, it may be that in the eternal scheme of things - that I get a new computer is actually fairly minor ...
If we hear little in reply, it may be that God is happy with us as we are. After all, it is assumed that most of our prayers are here in Church, and this is where God would have us be. (If we were out and about raping and pillaging, that might be another thing :-)
And the reference to the Holy Spirit is by no means accidental. The Holy Spirit is the supremely good Gift the Father gives us, crossing the "spiritual" "holy - evil" interface - that we might, in the power of the Holy Spirit, give across human boundaries to those in need. I want to immediately say that there is no "holy - evil" interface. If there ever was one it has been crossed - by the incarnation, death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
That is the work of the Holy Spirit par excellence, to bridge the gaps, to enable us to cross boundaries - in love. The Holy Spirit is not given to help us speak in strange and other-worldly languages so that we can be seen by others to be spiritual or religious - and therefore different from others. The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost enabled the apostles to speak in the languages of their hearers. Mostly the Church has thought that the Holy Spirit is given to enable the unchurched to understand the language of the Church - so we continue to use long words like "cantuar", "evangelism" and "redemption" - I mean the list is endless. We too have our "new moons", "matters of food and drink" and "visions" by which we measure others - disqualifying others and "insisting on (their!) self abasement ..." (Col 2:16,18) The Holy Spirit is given that we might learn the language others use and respond to them in their own terms - with words of acceptance and comfort.
As I look at the Lord's prayer, it strikes me how unnecessary all the petitions are. It is not just that God can't lead us into temptation. The Father is hallowed with or without our proclamation. The coming of the kingdom is in God's hands surely, and it will come neither sooner or later than God has already determined. God gives us our daily bread, he causes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike. God forgives us our sins. God doesn't bring us to the time of trial either.
Who are we praying to and what is all this about? One of the standard answers is that God likes us to ask, and this is both true and false. It is true in the sense that God wants us to be able to articulate what we desire and God can't change our minds. God can't give world peace, no matter how earnestly we pray for it on Sundays while we are hateful towards the rest of humanity for the rest of the week. It is false if we take it to mean that God especially likes properly subservient children - ones that are seen and not heard ...
I wonder what it would be like if we were to say instead: "Father, I hallow your name, therefore bring my kingdom, give me each day my daily bread, forgive my sins for I forgive others indebted to me, and do not bring me to the time of trial." I wonder if that is not what we actually mean when we pray this prayer ... if not by our words, but by our actions ... So no matter how earnestly we pray "Our Father ..." when in reality we are praying "My Father ..." - how much notice will God take of us?
It would seem to me that if the phenomenon behind Pauline Hanson's "One Nation" party is not racism, it is certainly concerned with "me" over and against others.
Let me stress to one and to all - I am not pointing the finger at the wicked sinners in Ireland or in the One Nation party - self interest infects me as much as anyone else.
Jesus indeed bids us ask - but we need to ask as much for others as for ourselves. Jesus cannot give to us and withhold from others. The Lord's prayer is as much a call to us to action as it is for God to do something. And the call to us is to recognise that we and all people share a common humanity under God and we are called to respect and share with others.
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