A few weeks ago the Church of England launched an advertising campaign inviting people to pray…. nothing controversial about that you might think. It featured scenes of what we might call `everyday folk` reciting the Lord`s Prayer but as you may have heard it caused a bit of a stir. Essentially, the companies responsible for its distribution to Cinemas decided in the end that it infringed their rules regarding what material they deemed appropriate for display.
You will perhaps have your own views on this curious episode but for what it`s worth I had two reactions. The first was really not to worry too much because the controversy itself was probably worth it…. I mean people never seem to learn that when you ban something you often shoot yourself in the foot. I mean, more people have now seen this message on social media than would have ever done in the Cinema.
But secondly, although the advertising people withdrew this ad` for rather odd and perhaps eccentric reasons (especially given the frankly obscene and offensive stuff they readily broadcast without question) I want to suggest that if you understand the Lord`s Prayer correctly then it`s exactly the kind of thing we might want to Ban…. because understood correctly and LIVED correctly, the Lord`s Prayer is seriously dangerous and subversive stuff.
Now, I`m sometimes in the habit of asking people if they pray ……and the answers people give are often quite revealing; and rarely if ever does this fail to begin a really good conversation. But one of the misunderstandings I often come across is the assumption that praying is somehow about `changing the mind of God`….. or that it`s some kind of mechanism whereby we can make life more favourable for us. That`s an understandable wish and there`s a lot we could say about all of that but my point is that we often forget the degree to which prayer is actually about changing US; and when you say the Lord`s Prayer aright that`s exactly what you should expect to happen.
You`ll might recall that the Lord`s Prayer was given by Jesus in response to the disciples` request that he teach them to pray…. and so it`s a pretty fundamental text for us to get to grips with. And so what I want us to do for a moment is to pause ….. and think for a moment about what the Lord gets you to say. Obviously, we can only skim through it this morning but nonetheless, notice firstly, that we begin with that word `Father`. Clearly, it`s word which emphasises intimacy …… and it quite deliberately steers us away from all that is distant or impersonal….. and it`s certainly not the `Force be with you`! The question is whether, as in the title of a book I came across many years ago (which described a woman`s journey to faith) whether you can, `Dare to call him Father`?
Secondly, that his name should be `Hallowed` or held in reverence would perhaps seem obvious but how often do we find ourselves speaking of him casually or indeed as a point of emphasis, “For God`s sake” as we put it? So we see that the prayer begins by asking us to consider, “Exactly, who do you think we`re are relating to?”
But then we find our horizons are broadened even further. “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done on earth as in Heaven” invites us to see that Prayer is Big Business. This intimate God has a big agenda in which I am caught up…. It`s cosmic in its scope ….. and so we come to see that praying is not about trying to get the world shaped according to my convenience but cooperating with HIS purposes.
When we say “Give us this day our daily bread” it`s a recognition that there is no such thing as a self-made person. It`s a declaration of my created-ness and dependence on Him and on others…. and the life I have is a gift and self-sufficiency -despite what you may have been taught- is NOT a Christian virtue.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”, tells me that at the core of our faith – as Pope Francis emphasised this week – is the mercy of God…. And so if mercy is the stuff of which HIS heart is made then we who are made in his likeness are called to reflect that and extend the same mercy to one another.
And “Lead us not into Temptation but deliver us from evil”, reminds us that to pray this prayer; to live this life will put you in a strained relationship with yourself and the world around you. A strained relationship with yourself because rather than feeling you`re making glorious spiritual progress you`re more than likely to become more aware of your own fallibility and luke-warmness…. and tension with the world around you because well, we shall have to confront the same propensity for sin and ugliness in others which we find in ourselves…. a world that wants very much to squeeze us into its own mould.
So the Lord`s prayer is both a prayer to learn and also a pattern for living. It is subversive… it undermines many of the assumptions by which we live. A colleague mine told me of the time he was stood by the door at the end of Worship when one of those high energy executive types shook him by the hand and said, “Well, that was wonderful Vicar, but of course now we have to get back to the real world don`t we?” This is an all too common reaction to the way of faith and clearly this particular man wasn`t taking God or worship of him seriously at all. For him these were marginal compared to the bottom line of making money and all the rest.
And my point is that he (and WE whenever we make the same mistake) clearly haven`t understood what it means to say the Lord`s Prayer either…. Oh, You can mouth the words all you like… the question is whether you`ve `prayed` them…. And to pray them means to let them change you from within. Because you cannot properly pray and then continue to act in a way where God and worship of him is marginal; peripheral or optional. Praying the Lord`s Prayer tells you who God is and who we are in relation to him. Again, it`s not so much about getting OUR way but getting in HIS way. It`s not so much about changing God but about changing US and it`s therefore subversive ….. and to the ego-centric it`s dangerous.
A picture I often return to at this time of year is that of the Christmas tree. In some ways it`s an odd custom… but we bring this tree in from outside and many of us discover that to make it fit we have to move a few things around. And of course then the living room looks really quite different. It`s a simple point really but we`ve not really understood or begun to pray the Lord`s prayer until we`ve allowed it to move from outside to inside…… where it begins to rearrange our internal furniture and our living looks rather different.