A sermon preached at Worcester College, Oxford at Evensong on Sunday January 17th. The first of the term’s series on The Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:1-4).
Chaplain, when you decided the theme for this term’s sermon series, you would have had little idea of how topical it would be become. For a moment in time, this most ancient of prayers became global news via an attempt by the Church of England to show an advert featuring it prior to screenings of Star Wars. This attempt to awaken another kind of force (not the kind that involves light-sabers) backfired when the advertising Empire struck back to ban it.
For a while, I wondered if I could make Lord’s Prayer fit a Star Wars theme; an Oxford education (particularly at the finest College, Worcester!) after all, surely prepares you for any adventure, literary or otherwise. And so I reflected briefly that although Jesus would have likely taught the Lord’s Prayer to his disciples in Aramaic, our record comes to us in the form Greek of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
Greek has a habit of placing verbs at the end of sentences. This would make a literal rendition of the Lukan version sound something like this: Father, your name hallowed be; your kingdom come; each day our daily bread, give us; our sin, forgive us…to the time of trial do not bring us. Uncannily close to that most noble of Star Wars languages spoken by the wise sage Yoda who also placed verbs at the end of sentences.
Realising that a whole Star Wars related sermon on the Lord’s Prayer was probably not what you were expecting this evening, but nonetheless seeking an Oxford connection, I sought inspiration closer to my present home in the north island of New Zealand. 40 minutes away from where I live, and within my Diocese, is the parish of Matamata, which contains the farm on which the film set of Hobbiton is located. Tolkein himself translated the Lord’s Prayer into Elvish, and specifically reflected on the line ‘and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil’ in connection with Frodo’s struggles against the power of the One Ring.
This perhaps provides us with a useful connection to the Gospel context of the Lord’s prayer: namely that the landscape of faith is filled with challenges and trials, but the disciple’s quest is for a Godly kingdom that scripts how we are to live in relationship to one another and to God in a way that is as relevant now as it was 2000 years ago when the disciples first asked Jesus: Lord, teach us to pray.
So what can you look out for over the coming weeks in your quest to ponder this prayer?
Firstly, for all its apparent familiarity, the Lord’s Prayer requires us to slow down and dwell with its words and phrases, so that the prayer may dwell in us. In his book ‘How to pray’, the former Bishop of Oxford John Pritchard says this: ‘A naval officer was once praying the Lord’s Prayer with a friend in a remote corner of Iceland. ‘Say it slowly’, he said, ‘each phrase weighs a ton.’’
Secondly, the Lord’s Prayer tells us something important about the nature of discipleship. The disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, as John taught his disciples. You cannot be a disciple if you are not open to being taught something new; that is the very meaning of the word ‘disciple’: one who is a pupil or an apprentice. Remarkably resonant with this are words from the new vice-chancellor of this University, Professor Louise Richardson who in her inaugural speech on Tuesday called on students to be open-minded: ‘how do we ensure [she said] that they appreciate the value of engaging with ideas they find objectionable, trying through reason to change another’s mind, while always being open to changing their own?’ To be a disciple is to be open to learning something new, that our lives may be enriched and in so doing be more fully formed into the likeness of Christ. The life of discipleship is all about the company you keep, those from whom you are willing to learn, and more often than not, it was and is about keeping the company of those with whom we are most unlike.
Thirdly, there is an intimate connection between our prayer, and our care for the world that is our home. The prayer that Jesus taught begins with the hallowing of the name of God, giving praise for the unmerited gift of life in creation, and immediately turns to pray that the kingdom of peace, justice and righteousness might be a reality here and now. Communities in which human beings flourish, creation is treated with respect, and the resources of the earth are sustained for those who are to follow us. A message perhaps, for the life of an Oxford College, where traditions are honoured, and buildings, grounds, and indeed human souls are tended with care knowing that we are entrusted with handing them on to generations to come.
Fourthly, the Lord’s Prayer is not a prayer just for the individual. It only achieves its fullest meaning when it is prayed together by the whole body of Christ, or with an awareness that even if we pray it on our own, we are joining in a chorus of languages and cultures around the world: E to matou Matua i te rangi, kia tapu tou ingoa, kia tae mai tou rangatiratanga. Kia meatia tau e pai ai ki runga ki te whenua, kia rite ano ki to te rangi. So begins the Lord’s Prayer in Maori, the indigenous language within the context in which I live and work. Most days, I pray the Lord’s Prayer in that language, and it forces me to raise awareness of my relationship to the land and people around me.
Finally: while the Lord’s Prayer is very here and now focused, the present always stands under the scrutiny that is possible when the light of the Gospel and the Kingdom it proclaims, is shining on what is happening. We are constantly called to work for the new community of peace, justice and righteousness which the Lord’s Prayer assumes and which the Gospel sets out.
While it is true to say that Jesus taught this prayer to his disciples a long time ago in a Roman Province far far away, we are invited to learn, re-learn and live this prayer out here and now, in this place, and on into the places where we go. May you so be inspired as you journey with this prayer throughout these coming weeks, and, may the force be with you! Amen. +Helen-Ann Waikato