The Lord's Prayer

Sermon for Trinity 10 at Colwall and Coddington

To listen as you read to the sermon, recorded in St James

Thirty-five years ago I was leading the prayers in the Christmas Service at the comprehensive where our daughters Helen and Hannah were. The pupils, the staff, the governors, the parents were all there. I ended with, “Let’s join together saying the prayer Jesus taught us to say, Our Father.....” Half way through it all ground to an awkward, confused, stumbling halt. I realized that I’d left one line out and thrown everyone. “We’d better start that again,” I said.

A few months ago I was talking to someone I didn’t know, and it turned out that he’d been a teacher there, and he said that the only thing he remembered of all the assemblies was the time the Vicar forgot The Lord’s Prayer.

One of the really good things about The Lord's Prayer is that, at least usually, it joins people together in prayer; everyone takes part and mainly in unison. You used to be able to presume that everyone knew it by heart. But sadly nowadays that’s not always the case, and so it has to be printed out on service sheets for weddings and funerals. But it still has that unifying effect. Often it’s the one prayer that people do know, and for a priest it’s a Godsend for when you’re praying with someone who’s in difficulties or ill or dying. Not a few times, by the bedside of someone who’s near to death, I’ve said The Lord's Prayer and seen, as Tim also said last Sunday, seen their lips silently mouthing the words. It can be very moving.

When it was mooted that we should have a series of sermons on prayer, I immediately, as Melanie put it, bagged The Lord's Prayer. Partly because I know something about it – nine years ago I wrote the booklet for our Lent house groups based on The Lord's Prayer – the subtitle said, “Not just Saying, but Praying and Living The Lord's Prayer.” – but also because I didn’t want to be landed with one of the awkward subjects like Meditation or Intercession – awkward because of God’s answer to reasonable requests so often being No.

The disciples asked Jesus, “Teach us how to pray,” and his response was what we call The Lord's Prayer. I think that if at the time Jesus could have looked ahead through 2000 years, he would have been surprised that what he said had become a prayer for millions worldwide to recite , and in a hundred different languages. He was teaching his friends how to pray, not teaching them a prayer. He was telling them the sort of things they should be including in their prayers.

So, while I think it’s tremendously valuable as a prayer we all know and can say together, or by ourselves, it’s also extremely useful as, what I think Jesus meant it to be, a pattern for our prayers. Without too much imagination or ingenuity you can make it cover everything.

The first part is focused on God and his glory. The second has to do with ourselves and our needs. And it deals with the past, the present and the future, and indeed, eternity.

Quite rightly, it begins with God. But the first word of all is very important: it’s “our”, and throughout the prayer it’s always “our”, never “my”.  It’s a prayer where we include others; not a selfish prayer.

Our Father. Jesus invites us to use his own intimate name, Abba, Father, for addressing God. Father - of course there are bad, abusive, frightening, cruel fathers, but let’s think of a father with all the right qualities. Father - it’s a word indicating a deep personal relationship. He begats us, to use that biblical expression; he causes us to be, and then he proceeds to provide for us, to protect us, to guide us, to discipline us and of course all summed up in to love us

Nowadays we might like to think of not just our Father but of our Parent. Because of course God encompasses all the attributes of motherhood as well as fatherhood. But somehow “Our Parent” sounds a bit impersonal. Anyway, “Our Father” it is, and what a lot we can give thanks for represented by that one phrase. And not forgetting that as our Father he’s a shared Father, making other people our sisters and brothers. He’s the Father of the whole human family.

Who art in heaven. God is omnipresent: he’s not just in heaven, he’s here on earth as well. But this line does suggest his overarching otherness, that mysterious remoteness, which as well as his closeness and intimacy is a part of God.

And that leads us on to Hallowed be thy name. In biblical times a name was more than simply an indentification tag: it expressed what a person was like, his or her character, in fact, the actual person. So here God’s name means all that he is, all the things we thought of as our Father plus that awesome, glorious nature that is his simply by being God -  beyond our comprehension and imagination.

Notice it’s Hallowed be not Hallowed is. It calls us to revere and adore and bow down before him in our prayers, in our worship and in the way we live our lives.

Well, as you can see, I’m whizzing through just a few thoughts to suggest what we can hang on the pegs of this great prayer.

Thy kingdom come. The Bible makes it plain that God is King of heaven and earth, and it sees his kingdom as not so much a territory but as his reign, his sovereignty. And it was the central theme of Jesus’ preaching. In the Gospels he never gave a definition of what exactly the kingdom is, but there’s nearly 50 sayings and parables of Jesus about it. And I suppose that, taking them all together, they say that the kingdom of God is the world and life as God wants it to be. So in this section of The Lord's Prayer we could include prayers for peace and justice and freedom and healing and also the church, as God’s agent for establishing his kingdom on earth. And we perhaps we should pray, “Thy kingdom come – beginning with me.” We want God to be the King of our lives, with all that that implies.

Thy will be done. In some ways this is the same as Thy Kingdom come, but it can add the idea of: Let us know what your will is for us, as a people, as a group or personally. At times we all have significant choices to make in our lives, and we can ask for God’s guidance, coming through prayer or reading or through the wisdom of others.

Give us this day our daily bread. Over the centuries some people have thought that this bread is the bread of holy communion. But Jesus’ life and teaching show him as someone concerned with ordinary everyday life rather than just religious matters. As Theresa would say, bread means bread – actually rather more than that. The Greek word for daily in daily bread is a very unusual one, and some years ago it was found by archaeologists on an ancient fragment of papyrus in Alexandria. It was there at the top of a shopping list – things to get today. So this is a prayer asking not just for bread, but for all the basic material necessities of life – not luxuries, necessities, and not a freezer-full, nor any over-abundance; and not just for us, also for the hungry, the destitute, the refugee, and all who could help – the politicians and ourselves. And let’s not forget to say Thank you.

Forgive us our trespasses, not only the wrong things we’ve done, but all the good things which we could have done but didn’t, and for most of us that’s probably the longer list of the two. And forgive those who trespass against us. We cannot really know God’s forgiveness if we are not people who forgive others.

Lead us not into temptation. I used to take communion to a lady who’d reached 100, and it amused me that she always said, “And lead us NOT into temptation.” It’s pretty good to still be tempted when you’re 100. We know our own temptations, and we can interpret this clause as asking God to give us the strength we need to stop us from falling.

And deliver us from evil – us all, the world from terrorism, racial hatred, heinous crime and so on.

The ending of The Lord's Prayer, Thine is the kingdom etc, isn’t there in the earliest Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. It wasn’t part of what Jesus originally said, but that it was soon included shows that very early on Christians were reciting the prayer in their church services and then adding these words of praise as a way of rounding it off.

All these centuries later in our own worship we are still glad and privileged to repeat these words given to us by our Lord and Saviour. And I hope I’ve shown how we can also use them as a framework for our own prayers. This Lord’s Prayer can bring the whole of God to our lives and the whole of our lives and the life of the world to God.