Sermon at Evensong on the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity 2018
The Lord’s Prayer; how we should pray, and with what attitude and with what motives.
The Venerable David Stanton Canon in Residence
Sunday, 9th September 2018 at 3.00 PM
Our second lesson this afternoon, from St Matthew’s Gospel (6.1-18), tells us about the giving of the Lord’s Prayer, about how we should pray, and with what attitude and with what motives.
As a young boy in the early 1960s, living a few miles outside Exeter in glorious Devonshire countryside, I was taught to say the Lord’s Prayer. I can distinctly remember picking up the rhythm of the prayer fairly quickly, but for a few years a crucial word had gone amiss.
From the age of four until around the age of seven, I confidently proclaimed ‘Our Father who art in Devon!’
I’m sure the Communications Officer in the Exeter diocese could have a field day with this phrase, but it was my early headmaster who spotted the mistake, and corrected me in such a humorous way, that the story has remained a good family joke ever since.
The Lord’s Prayer is, of course, one of the most famous passages in the Bible. Almost all of us know the words by heart, and its often the first prayer that many people say quietly when we enter a Church.
Here at the Abbey the Lord’s Prayer is said formally every day at Morning Prayer, at the Eucharist twice daily, and of course both said and sung at this service of Evensong. Over the years I’ve often reflected on how we all pray this special prayer, and how it ultimately affects our daily lives?
Religion in the time of Jesus had largely become an outward form. That’s why it weighed so heavily on Jesus’ heart to warn his disciples. ‘And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.’ (Matthew 6.5)
Most of us can't imagine what it would have been like to have been with Jesus during his earthly ministry. Seeing him touch the sick, perform his many miracles and talk about the kingdom of God and the nature of God.
We surely would have been amazed and inspired to hear him teach, and then we would have been mesmerised as he quietly explained the meanings of his teachings to his disciples. Imagine what it would have been like to ask him whatever question came to mind?
When the disciples witnessed Jesus perform his miracles and teaching, they didn't say, ‘Lord teach us to teach like you!’ or, ‘Lord, teach us to do that miracle!’ Instead, what captured their attention was hearing him pray.
When Jesus taught them the Lord’s Prayer, he gave them an example, a pattern, of how to pray. In other words, the ‘ingredients’ that go into prayer.
‘Our Father in heaven’ is teaching us whom to address our prayers to the Father.
‘Hallowed be thy name’ is telling us to worship God, and to praise him for who he is.
The phrase ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ is a reminder to us that we are to pray for God’s plan in our lives and the world, and not to rely on our own plans.
We are to pray for God’s will to be done, not for our own desires. We are encouraged to ask God for the things we need in ‘giving us today our daily bread.’
‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us’ reminds us to confess (in penitence) our sins to God and to turn from them, and also to forgive others as God has forgiven us.
The conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’ is a plea for help in overcoming sin and a request for protection from the wiles of the devil.
But this prayer, is also very much a prayer for the human condition. It's an intriguing question as to whether the Lord's Prayer is all about us. In many ways, I think, it's about all human beings. It's about what it's like to be a human being: ‘And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. Give us this day our daily bread.’
When we pray these parts of the Lord's Prayer, we shouldn’t just think of ourselves or even just our fellow Christians; it’s a prayer for all human beings: Give all of us what we need for life, the dignity and the hope. Keep all of us from being plunged into crisis we can't handle. Save all of us from the destructive power of evil.
So I don’t really think it’s simply a prayer only about Christians, although it is a prayer for Christians - because it begins with the words ‘Our Father’.
But as we go deeper into it, we see more fully that it's a prayer about our human condition. When we pray ‘Our Father’ we recognise that God has indeed created us and continues to nurture us. He has not made the world and then left us to it, although admittedly some earthly fathers do just that.
This is Our Father who is father of all of us, but most of all, this is our Father who truly loves us, who forgives us our failings, and intimately cares for us.
The intimacy and power of the words in this prayer take on a depth of meaning that often escapes us when we simply rattle through the prayer from memory.
In giving the Lord’s Prayer, we must also be careful to understand that Jesus is actually giving us something more than just words. He is giving us a pattern for prayer. He is teaching us to pray.
Thus, while the words of the Lord’s Prayer are precious, it is also crucially important for us to look at the underlying structure of the prayer so as to learn how to pray.
Jesus is illustrating through these words what ought to be going on inside us, in our minds and hearts as we pray. Within these simple words we have here what the mind and heart of a person of prayer is like.