On Avoiding the Dangers of Prosperity (a sermon for Thanksgiving on Deuteronomy 8.7-18)

I don’t very often announce titles for my sermons, but today I want to do so. My title for today is ‘On avoiding the dangers of prosperity’.

It might come as a surprise to you to hear that prosperity can be dangerous. It certainly isn’t a message our politicians want us to hear; they’re committed to the position that prosperity is a pure and unadulterated ‘good thing’ and must be cultivated at all costs. Marketers don’t want us to hear it either, because their entire strategy is to encourage us to be discontented with our current level of prosperity, so they can sell us more things.

Nonetheless, when I read what Jesus has to say in the Gospels about money and possessions, it sometimes sounds to me as if he’s talking about radioactive materials: they can do a lot of good if they’re used properly, but you have to be extremely careful how you handle them if you want to avoid being poisoned. And the authors of the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy have the same viewpoint. To them, the prosperity of the nation of Israel is a blessing from God for which they give thanks, but it also has potential dangers. How do you handle prosperity without being poisoned by it? That’s the theme of our Old Testament reading for today.

Let’s get the context. The Hebrew slaves have been set free from their bondage in Egypt, they’ve received God’s commandments at Mount Sinai, and they’ve spent forty years wandering in the Sinai desert. They’re now standing on the borders of Canaan, their promised land. Their leader Moses is an old man about to die, and he’s gathered the people together to give them what you might call his ‘Last Will and Testament’. Deuteronomy is presented to us as a sermon preached by Moses, in which he restates God’s laws and encourages the people to remain faithful to their God. Listen to what he says in verses 7-9:

“For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper”.

I’m sure this sounds pretty mouth-watering to the Israelites as they stand on the borders of Canaan. But there’s a potential danger, which Moses outlines for them in the following verses. They might go into the Promised Land, settle into their new homes, enjoy the prosperity of the land and then get so used to it that they forget it’s a gift from God to them. As verse 17 puts it, they might start to think ‘my power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth’.

Today as we celebrate Thanksgiving, we may need to guard against a similar danger. Despite our recent economic woes we still live in one of the most prosperous societies that has ever existed on the face of the earth. I’m not very old, but even in my lifetime our expectations around ‘standard of living’ have increased exponentially.

When I was a little boy, going out to a movie was a big thing. We weren’t very well off financially and it wasn’t something we did very often; I remember going to see ‘Bambi’ and ‘The Sound of Music’, but that’s about it. We also didn’t have a TV in my home, but my grandparents did, so part of the fun of going across the road to visit them was being able to watch Fireball XL5 or Thunderbirds on my grandparents’ TV (in black and white, of course)! But nowadays, being able to watch TV shows or movies on demand on the Internet is taken for granted, and people feel deprived if they can’t do it. Also, when I was a little boy one bathroom per house was the rule, and in hotels you assumed you’d have to share a bathroom with others. Not so nowadays! And so it goes on – microwaves, personal computers, GPS, smart phones, smart watches, ‘Alexa’ – all these very new things have become an integral part of many people’s lives.

I enjoy these things, I give thanks for them, and I don’t relish the thought of living without them. Nonetheless, from a spiritual point of view, not all is well with this picture. First of all, in this prosperous society the danger of what Moses calls ‘Forgetting the Lord your God’ is very real; we can get so self-satisfied with our prosperous lifestyle that we lose all sense of need for God at all. And second, of course, not everyone shares in the prosperity. Twenty-five years ago the average CEO of a large American corporation earned about 44 times as much as their lowest paid workers. Today the average CEO earns more than three hundred times what their lowest paid workers earn. That’s a dramatic example of the way the gap between rich and poor in society is increasing.

Our Old Testament reading for today points out this danger to us, and gives us three strategies for dealing with it.

Strategy number one is to ‘Remember’. When I first came to St. Margaret’s nearly twenty years ago, we did a number of ‘Meet the Rector’ evenings at which we used an exercise called the ‘Four Quaker Questions’. Two of the questions were “Where did you grow up and what were the winters like?” and “Describe the house you lived in? How was it heated?” So we spent time sharing stories about our roots with one another. A couple of things were very interesting to me. Firstly, many of us grew up in circumstances much humbler than those we now enjoy. Second, many of us have very fond memories of those simpler times.

Moses’ first strategy for the Israelites to protect themselves against the potential dangers of wealth is to remember where you’ve come from. Before our reading starts, in verse 2, he says “Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness”, and in verse 14 he goes on “…do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness…and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know”.

Moses reminds them that they were slaves in Egypt, in conditions of backbreaking labour and unimaginable suffering. He reminds them of the long forty-year trek through the desert. But he also reminds them of the good things: how God set them free from their Egyptian taskmasters, how God provided them with food every day on their desert journey. “Remember how you depended on God day by day”, he’s saying, “and how God came through for you”.

The interesting thing is that the people for whom the Book of Deuteronomy was written had no personal memory of the slavery in Egypt or the desert years of Israel. In writing these stories down and passing them on, the authors of Deuteronomy were encouraging the cultivation of a kind of ‘ancestral memory’. The same thing happened when Israel celebrated the Passover every year; they re-enacted the night before they left Egypt, so that the younger generations who hadn’t been there could enter into the experience for themselves.

Those of you who’ve visited Fort Edmonton Park will probably have seen the house Premier Alexander Rutherford lived in during the early part of this century. The interesting thing to me was that many of us in this congregation now live in larger houses than the Premier of Alberta lived in a hundred years ago! I think Moses would encourage us as a society to remember where we have come from. Our present standard of living is not something we enjoy as a human right; most people on the face of the earth do not, in fact, enjoy it. It’s a privilege, and it should lead us to thankfulness to God.

And that brings us to Moses’ second strategy for dealing with prosperity. Verse 10 says, ‘Bless the LORD your God’. In other words, we are to continually thank God for all the blessings we have received.

Thankfulness is a habit that needs to be cultivated. Some people never learn to do that; our society has largely forgotten how to cultivate the habit of thankfulness. Instead we’ve developed complaint into an art form, and we usually aim our complaints at different levels of government. Our modern governments provide us with incredible services and benefits that most of the people of the world can only dream about, but so often our response is complaint: we’re not being given enough, or we’re being charged too much for it.

Thankfulness is an antidote to this. The way Moses tells it here, thankfulness is not a feeling but a habit. He doesn’t say, “Feel thankful”; he says,“You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you” (v.10). Thankfulness, in other words, isn’t a matter of waiting until we feel gratitude; it’s a matter of saying thank you, and saying it every time we eat. Our words have the power to transform us. The more we repeat something, the more it sinks into us and becomes true for us.

This isn’t just about saying grace at our daily meals, although that’s important. It also includes making a habit of including a good dose of thanksgiving in our daily prayers, and pausing often during the day to say “Thank you” to God. It includes experiencing the truth behind the words of the old chorus: “Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done”. I challenge you to do that: count your blessings, name them one by one. Then do it again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. Do it until it becomes a habit. It’s a habit with the power to change our hearts.

So Moses has given us two strategies to guard against the dangers of prosperity: we’re to remember where we’ve come from, and we’re to cultivate the habit of thankfulness. The third strategy is to keep God’s commandments. Look in verse 11: “Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today”. Obedience, in this passage, is not a way of buying blessing from God; rather, it’s a way of saying thank you to God for the blessing we’ve already received.

But I have a question: which commandments are we talking about here? When we hear the phrase ‘God’s commandments’, we tend to think in terms of the Ten Commandments and other laws about personal morality, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, the Law Moses was commanding the Israelites to obey was much bigger than the Ten Commandments. It’s preserved for us in the first five books of the Bible, and it includes not just laws about personal morality but also laws about building a just society.

For example, when you were harvesting your field you had to leave some grain standing at the edges so the poor could glean a living from it. You had to let the land lie fallow every seventh year and rely on God sending you a bumper harvest in the sixth year. When you sold land, you had to offer it first within your own family so that equality of wealth between families was preserved. And every fifty years the Year of Jubilee was celebrated. In this year all land was to revert to its original owners, all debts were to be forgiven and all slaves set free. The ideal was equality; that society as a wholeshould prosper, and not just individuals in it.

My point in bringing this to your attention isn’t to suggest we should revive the entire Jewish civil law. Rather, I want to remind you that God’s law has never been just about personal morality; it also asks us to work toward the creation of a just society, where the rights of the poor and vulnerable are protected.

Today at St. Margaret’s we gather to give thanks for all the blessings we have received from God. Moses encourages us to cultivate this habit. We ought to verbalise this as often as possible—both to God and to others. So let me encourage you to be intentional about growing the habit of thankfulness. My observation, over forty-one years in pastoral ministry, is that people who make thankfulness a habit are happier people who enjoy their lives more.

But the other side of thankfulness is to show our gratitude by making sure others alsoenjoy the fruits of prosperity. Today at St. Margaret’s we’re doing this by our offering of non-perishable food items for the Food Bank. We’re also doing it by our special offering today for World Vision’s ‘Raw Hope’ initiative.

But of course it can’t end there. We’re encouraged in the Scriptures to move through our lives with our eyes wide open, ready to see the needs of others and look for ways to help them – not just in our community, but in the world at large as well. This is another way we show our thankfulness to God for all the blessings we have received.

Prosperity can be a blessing, but we need to handle it carefully. We need to remember where we’ve come from; we need to cultivate the habit of thankfulness; we need to live in obedience to God’s commandments, especially the ones that require us to care for those less fortunate than ourselves. In other words, we need to learn to see our prosperity as a trust from God, to be used to advance God’s purposes in the world. If we can do that, we might just be able to handle it without being poisoned by it! May the Holy Spirit guide and strengthen us to use what has been entrusted to us according to the will of God.

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‘Faith Enough to Forgive’ (a sermon on Luke 17.1-10)

The subject of forgiveness is a hugely painful one for many Christians. Pastors and priests are confronted with it all the time. People come to us with stories of horrible things others have done to them, and then they look at us angrily and say, “And I suppose you’re going to tell me I should forgive him!” Or, alternatively, they look at us with tears in their eyes and say, “I know I should forgive him, and I’ve really tried, but I just can’t.” 

One of the most famous modern stories of Christian forgiveness took place thirteen years ago in the community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Here’s a story from three years ago from the Washington Post:

A single word in black cursive font hangs above a large double-pane window in Terri Roberts’s sunroom. It says “Forgiven.” The word—and the room itself, a gift built by her Amish neighbors just months after the unimaginable occurred—is a daily reminder of all that she’s lost and all that she’s gained these past 10 years.

The simple, quiet rural life she knew shattered on Oct. 2, 2006, when her oldest son, Charles Carl Roberts IV, walked into a one-room Amish schoolhouse on a clear, unseasonably warm Monday morning. The 32-year-old husband and father of three young children ordered the boys and adults to leave, tied up 10 little girls between the ages of 6 and 13 and shot them, killing five and injuring the others, before killing himself.

Terri Roberts’s husband thought they’d have to move far away. He knew what people thought of parents of mass murderers. He believed they would be ostracized in their community, blamed for not knowing the evil their child was capable of. But in the hours after the massacre, as Amish parents still waited in a nearby barn for word about whether their daughters had survived, an Amish man named Henry arrived at the Roberts’ home with a message: The families did not see the couple as an enemy. Rather, they saw them as parents who were grieving the loss of their child, too. Henry put his hand on the shoulder of Terri Roberts’s husband and called him a friend.

The world watched in amazement as, on the day of their son’s funeral, nearly 30 Amish men and women, some the parents of the victims, came to the cemetery and formed a wall to block out media cameras. Parents, whose daughters had died at the hand of their son, approached the couple after the burial and offered condolences for their loss.

Then, just four weeks after the shooting, the couple was invited to meet with all the families in a local fire hall. One mother held Roberts’s gaze as both women’s eyes blurred with tears, she said. They were all grieving; they were all struggling to make sense of the senseless.

But the Amish did more than forgive the couple. They embraced them as part of their community. When Roberts underwent treatment for Stage 4 breast cancer in December, one of the girls who survived the massacre helped clean her home before she returned from the hospital. A large yellow bus arrived at her home around Christmas, and Amish children piled inside to sing her Christmas carols.

“The forgiveness is there; there’s no doubt they forgive,” Roberts said.

Steven Nolt, a professor of Amish studies at Elizabethtown College, said that for most people, forgiveness and acceptance come at the end of a long emotional process. But the Amish forgive first and then every day work through the emotions of it. This “decisional forgiveness” opened a space for Roberts to offer her friendship, which normally in their situation would be uncomfortable, he said.

I wonder what you would have said or done in the position of those Amish families? I wonder what would have done?

Our Gospel for today contains straight talk on the subject of forgiveness. Jesus teaches us that when our brother or sister sins against us—the original language says ‘brother’, not ‘another disciple’ as the NRSV has it—when our brother or sister sins against us, we are to rebuke them, and if they repent, we are to forgive them. At that point his disciples might have thought “Wow—that’s a tough one! We’ll need to be a lot further along on the road of faith to be able to do that!” So they ask in verse 5, “Increase our faith!” In the rest of the passage Jesus corrects their misunderstanding of what’s necessary for them to be able to forgive.

As we read between the lines a bit in this story, we come to understand that the disciples were mistaken on two counts: they had a wrong view of forgiveness and a wrong view of faith. Let’s look a little more closely at this together. 

First of all, the disciples had a wrong view of forgiveness.My guess is that they made the same mistake on this subject as many do today: they were confusing forgiveness with excusing or with the healing of the hurt. 

What’s the difference? Well, excusing says “What you did was no big deal, so I’m not going to make an issue out of it”. But forgiveness says “What you’ve done was sinful and wrong, but I’m not going to exact vengeance on you. Instead, I’m going to continue to act in a loving way toward you”. But acting in love to someone doesn’t necessarily mean letting them get away with evil. Those of us who are parents know this very well: forgiving our kids and acting in love toward them doesn’t mean we let them get away with wrongdoing without trying to stop them and help them change. What it does mean is that we do what’s best for them, rather than what feels good to us.

In our Gospel, Jesus is clearly not talking about excusing. He says in verse 3 “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them, and if they repent, forgive them” (NIV 2011). The command to rebuke is as plain and clear as the command to forgive. And it is important for the other person, too. If someone sins against me and causes me harm, it is clearly spiritually harmful for them as well. I am commanded by Jesus to point that out to them and to call for repentance.

I wonder if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of this sort of thing? Some years ago I had said something unkind about someone to a third party, and the person I’d been talking about had heard about my remarks. She was a lot younger than me, but nonetheless she very bravely confronted me with it, quite tearfully in fact, and told me how hurt she had been. I blustered a bit, but the plain fact was that she was right and I was wrong. Eventually I stopped blustering, admitted she was right, and asked her forgiveness. She dealt faithfully with me according to Jesus’ teaching here, but then she freely forgave me when I repented and apologized. I was not excused, but I was forgiven.

So forgiveness is not the same as excusing. Neither is it the same as experiencing healing of the hurt we have received. I think that when many people say, “I can’t forgive him!” what they really mean is “I can’t get over the pain he caused me”. And of course that makes a great deal of sense; the healing of pain, especially emotional pain, often takes a very long time. If we wait for the pain to go away before we forgive someone, it’s likely we’ll never reach the forgiveness stage.

Now I hear you thinking, “Well, if forgiveness is not excusing and it’s not making the pain go away, what exactly is it?” Forgiveness is an act of the will. It’s a choice I make, a choice to continue to actin a loving way toward those who have hurt me, whether I feel like it or not. It’s a choice to accept the injury and to return for it love and not vengeance. I say again, it’s not about feelings but about actions. It’s well described for us by Paul in these verses from Romans:

‘No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will be heaping burning coals on their heads”. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (Romans 12:20-21).

Forgiveness is an act of the will, a choice to love another person, not matter how we feel. Why is it so important to Jesus? Because to refuse to forgive is to bind ourselves to the past and to refuse to move forward and grow in love. Clinging to bitterness, anger and the thought of vengeance is not growth; only love is growth. So Jesus gives us this command for our own sake, because he loves us and wants to lead us from slavery into freedom.

We’ve said that the disciples probably had a wrong view of forgiveness. Secondly, they also probably had a wrong view of faith.

The disciples were obviously overawed by Jesus’ command to rebuke and forgive. “This is far beyond us! We’re going to need a lot of supernatural help to put this into practice! Increase our faith!” They obviously expected that Jesus would somehow do this miraculously, as in his healings and his exorcisms. But the truth is that Jesus usually answers a prayer for more faith by allowing us to get into situations where we have to exerciseour faith, so that our ‘faith-muscles’ can grow.

What do I mean by that? Well, it’s often been observed that most stories of God’s miraculous healings in the world today come from countries where there are no expensive clinics or cheap drug plans. The people have nowhere else to turn but to God, so their faith-muscles get a lot of use. They grow in faith by exercising their faith on a daily basis.

How might God answer a prayer like “Increase our faith”? I’d suggest that if we as a congregation prayed this prayer, one way God might answer it would be to allow one of our members who makes a major contribution to our budget to move to another city. The prospect of a budget shortfall might have the effect of forcing us to rely on God more and pray constantly for God’s help! So—be careful what you pray for!

This leads us to verses 6-10. After the apostles asked Jesus to increase their faith, here’s what happened:

The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.

‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”’

These verses make more sense when we take them in the context of what has gone before. Jesus is saying to his disciples “You’re asking for more faith so that you can forgive as I’ve told you. You think the problem is your lack of faith, but in fact it’s not. You already have all the faith you need. You are a servant; you’ve been commanded to forgive—not to feelforgiveness, but to forgive in action. What you need is not more faith; what you need is a little bit of simple obedience 

A few years ago I read this story in Brian Zahnd’s book ‘Unconditional’: 

During the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1917, one and a half million Armenians were murdered by Ottoman Turks, and millions more were raped, brutalized, and forcibly deported. From the Armenian Genocide comes a famous story of a Turkish army officer who led a raid on the house of an Armenian family. The parents were killed, and their daughters raped. The girls were then given to the soldiers. The officer kept the youngest daughter for himself. Eventually this girl was able to escape and later trained to become a nurse. In an ironic twist of fate, she found herself working in a ward for wounded Turkish army officers. One night by the dim glow of the lantern, she saw among her patients the face of the man who had murdered her parents and so horribly abused her sisters and herself. Without exceptional nursing, he would die. And that is what the Armenian nurse gave – exceptional care.

As the officer began to recover, a doctor pointed to the nurse and told the officer, “If it weren’t for this woman, you would be dead”. The officer looked at the nurse and asked, “Have we met?” “Yes”, she replied. After a long silence the officer asked, “Why didn’t you kill me?” The Armenian Christian replied, “I am a follower of him who said, ‘love your enemies’”.

This young woman didn’t wait until she felt forgiveness, or until she felt more faith. She apparently didn’t consult her feelings at all. She simply acted in obedience and offered the practical care that her enemy, the man who had injured her, needed in order to survive. And God honoured her obedience; her story is still being told today as an example of the forgiveness and love for enemies that Jesus commands of us.

No one is pretending this is easy. But it is vital, for two reasons. Firstly for our own spiritual and emotional health. To refuse to forgive is to bind yourself to the past with chains of iron. To refuse to forgive is to decide that the future will look exactly like the past: you hit me, I hit you harder, and so on, and so on. Only forgiveness has the power to change the future. 

Secondly, it’s vital for the future of the Christian church—including our own church. These days there’s all sorts of hand wringing in Christian circles about shrinking church attendance and proving we’re still relevant and so on. But those aren’t the most important issues facing the Christian church. The most important issue facing the Christian church is this: will we look like Jesus? Will we live in such a way that people learn about what Jesus said and did just by watching our lives? Nothing else is as important as that. And of course, forgiving and being forgiven is right at the heart of the life and teaching of Jesus. 

So today, let’s not pray as the disciples did, “Increase our faith”. Let’s recognize that we’ve already been given enough faith to do as we’re told. Let’s simply resolve that when we will leave here today, we will do our best to put Jesus’ words into practice:

“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent’, you must forgive them” (Luke 17:3-4 NIV 2011).

The God who looks for the lost (a sermon on Psalm 14 and Luke 15.1-10)

I suspect that when we read our psalm this morning, some of you had a strong negative reaction to it. I’m thinking especially of verses 2-3: let me refresh your memory by reading them again to you, this time in the New Living Translation:

‘The LORD looks down from heaven upon the entire human race; he looks to see if anyone is truly wise, if anyone seeks God. But no, all have turned away; all have become corrupt. No one does good, not a single one.’

Really? No one? Not Jean Vanier? Not Mother Teresa? Not the people who put in hundreds of hours a year volunteering at Hope Mission or Habitat for Humanity? Not the parents who run themselves ragged week by week trying hard to make life good for their kids? Not the counsellors who answer emergency calls in the middle of the night to listen to people who are on the verge of suicide? What on earth is the psalmist talking about? Did he get out of the wrong side of bed that morning? What had happened to him, to give him such a negative view of the human race?

Let me say two things right away. First, to read the Bible with your brain in gear means that you begin by asking yourself ‘What kind of literature am I reading here?’ Obviously, if you go to your local library and pick out a volume of poetry, a copy of the Criminal Code of Canada, a history of Alberta, and the latest novel by Stephen King, you know you’re reading four very different kinds of books. You’ll have to read them very differently if you’re going to understand them and enjoy them.

And it’s the same with the Bible. The Bible is a library of books written over a span of about fifteen hundred years. It contains letters, hymns and poems, biographies, historical chronicles, and the criminal code of ancient Israel, to name just a few genres. Reading a poem or hymn is not the same as reading a sermon or theological essay or a law book. And Psalm 14 is a poem. Poets use vivid imagery to make a point, but they don’t always expect you to take their images literally. Sometimes they’re just being imaginative, and sometimes they’re being intentionally provocative.

Secondly, I think I can begin to understand the mood the psalmist was in. I’ve been in it myself for a couple of years now. For a long time I’ve been in the habit of skimming the pages of my newspaper as I eat my breakfast, but lately I’ve noticed that I’m getting more reluctant to do that. It feels more and more like a really negative way to get ready to go to work. I read about Donald Trump and Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin and all the other political leaders who seem so blatantly unfit to lead their people. I read about corruption scandals and murders, wars, acts of injustice and oppression, and the refusal of so many people to take climate change seriously. I read these things and I say to myself, “Has everyone turned away from virtue and goodness and become totally corrupt? Is there, in all the world, any such thing as a single uncorrupt politician? Is there anyone left who’s in it for other people, not to build their own kingdom?”

But then I look into my own heart and try to face up honestly to what’s there. I think about some of the things I’ve done in my own life, things I’m ashamed even to remember. And I think of the famous story of the writer G.K. Chesterton, who was responding to a newspaper article with the headline, ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ His letter to the editor was very simple. ‘Dear Sir: I am. Yours faithfully, G.K. Chesterton.’

I think this is what the psalmist was grappling with here. I don’t know whether or not he was familiar with the words in Genesis chapter one: ‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1.27 NRSV). But if he was, I’m sure he must have been struck by the contrast between these two visions of human nature. On the one hand, Genesis sees us as the pinnacle of God’s creation: we were the last thing he made, the climax, the thing every other creative act had been leading up to. Here was a being made just like God, like a daughter or son made in the image of their parents! Surely such a being would show the love and compassion and creativity and sense of justice of God? Wouldn’t you think so?

But then, how do you explain the rest of the Book of Genesis? Within two chapters you have Cain murdering his brother Abel. And the rest of the book talks about faithlessness, family intrigues, jealousies, and acts of manipulation and violence. How can a creature like that be made in the image of God?

Today we maybe feel the same way. Our human knowledge has expanded enormously over the past century. It’s now within our power to do all kinds of good in the world, using technologies our grandparents couldn’t even dream about. So why is it that the story of humanity feels very much like it always has? Wars and rumours of wars, thefts and murders, acts of greed and corruption, the rich exploiting the poor, people dividing up by race or religion or skin colour or political opinions—we can find it all in the Bible, and we can find it all in the latest edition of the Globe and Mail. Most people who think the Bible is out of date have never read it. When you read it, much of it feels depressingly familiar.

It seems to me that a Christian who reads the scriptures thoughtfully and prayerfully is forced to discard two simplistic views of human nature: one that says all human beings are basically good, and one that says all human beings are basically bad. If all humans are basically good, how do we explain the acts of evil committed by people brought up in loving homes by good parents who gave them the best possible moral guidance? How do we explain the fact that even the best possible projects for the improvement of the world seem to run aground, over and over again, on the rock of human selfishness and self-interest? But on the other hand, if all humans are basically bad, how do we explain the incredible acts of kindness and generosity we see around us every day?

We humans are made in the image of God, the best of all parents. And like a good parent, God doesn’t force us to do his will; if he wants us to grow and mature, he has to allow us the freedom to make our own choices, in the hope that they will be good choices. Is there any way to offer that freedom without the possibility that humans will make the wrong choices? I can’t imagine any way that could happen. Growth in maturity involves forming the habit of rejecting the way of hatred and injustice, and choosing the way of love and goodness. It has to be a meaningful choice: one in which making the wrong choice has real consequences.

The Bible tells the story of how so often we humans have made the wrong choice. It’s as if sin and evil is an infection that comes into our systems at a very early age. Some theologians would say we have it before we’re born, although the Bible doesn’t very often speculate about that. But the reality is that humans are made in the image of God, but are also infected with evil and selfishness. We have our better angels, but we also have our inner demons. We do acts of kindness and love, but we’re always tempted to be selfish and angry and judgemental and cruel, and we struggle with that every day.

And that struggle is made doubly difficult if we don’t have God’s help. Our psalm began with the phrase, ‘Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God”’ (v. 1 NRSV). That might give us warm fuzzy feelings about ourselves: we’re not atheists, so we’re not fools! But we need to think again. In the ancient world atheism was almost unknown, so it’s highly unlikely that the psalmist was describing literal atheists here. What he was likely describing is people who act as if there is no God:

‘The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God…Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers, who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the LORD?’ (vv. 2, 4 NRSV).

The fools are the people who tell the census taker, “Yes, of course I believe there’s a god of some kind—doesn’t everyone?” But then they don’t do anything about that belief. They don’t let their belief in the existence of God influence a single moral decision they make. It doesn’t change the way they spend their money. It doesn’t change the way they treat a poor person, or a person of a different race. It doesn’t have any effect at all on the way they vote in an election. And they certainly don’t put any energy into trying to build a relationship with God. They’ll work their fingers to the bone to get an expensive university education; they’ll incur hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to get exactly the home they want, but how much time and money are they prepared to put into learning how to know God? No, the psalmist says, ‘they ‘do not call upon the LORD’ (v.4 NRSV).

And this is where our gospel reading starts. God loves his people and longs for them to know him. He wants them to seek him with all their hearts, but they’ve demonstrated over and over again that they won’t. So what does he do? His people are lost and they don’t even seem to know it. In fact, they refuse to acknowledge that they’re lost. “We’re fine—nothing to see here—move on, please!”

How do we respond to people like that? The Pharisees and scribes have a very judgemental attitude toward them. They’re not at all happy with how much time Jesus is spending with them. ‘And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”’ (Luke 15.2 NRSV). As far as they were concerned, it was up to the lost sheep to find their shepherd. After all, they were the ones who got lost! It was their fault! Why should God go looking for them? It wasn’t God who strayed away!

But I suspect Jesus saw things differently. He knew that most sheep don’t wander away on purpose. They just aren’t thinking ahead. They keep their heads down, eating grass, thinking only of the needs of the present moment, and then after a while they look up and realize that the rest of the flock seems to have vanished! They were so concerned about the need of the present moment—grass—that they took their eyes off the shepherd.

And that’s the way it is with people. Often, we don’t mean to stray away from God; we just get so tied up meeting the needs of the moment—a bit more money here, a moment of relaxation there—that we lose sight of what life is all about in the first place, and we lose sight of the Good Shepherd who gives our life meaning and purpose. It doesn’t take a big sin to take us out of orbit around God – just a little distraction will often do the job.

And so God doesn’t wait for the lost sheep to find him. He knows that’s not going to happen. Psalm 14 says that the Lord looks down from heaven to see if there are any who seek after God, but there aren’t. Our track record there is not very good.

But fortunately for us, God doesn’t leave it at that. After centuries of trying to get our attention through prophets and preachers, he sends his Son to us, the one who is the perfect image of the Father. The Gospel of John tells us that God himself comes to us in his Son. ‘In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God…So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.’ (John 1.1, 14, NLT).

So Psalm 14 isn’t the last word on the subject. It’s a true word, but by itself it’s not complete. Psalm 14 brings us face to face with the bad news about ourselves—what Francis Spufford calls our ‘Human Propensity to Mess Things Up’ (except that he uses a stronger word than ‘mess’!). We can’t pretend this doesn’t exist; we can see it all around us.

But the Gospel gives us another word: God doesn’t wait for us to seek him. He came among us to seek us. That’s what Jesus was doing. By his life and teaching he was demonstrating for us what a life of love and godliness is like. He was showing God to us through every word he spoke and every action he took. And he was reaching out to the last, the least, and the lost, going the extra mile, doing all he could to bring the love of God within reach to every human being.

That’s who Jesus is. That’s what God is like. That’s what the Gospel is. We may be more messed up than we like to admit, but we’re also loved more deeply than we’ve ever dared to imagine. Jesus came all the way from heaven to earth and gave his life on the Cross for us. He says, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10:11). And not just for the sheep as a group; Paul says in Galatians ‘The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). You matter to God. So do I, and so does every other individual on the face of the earth. God is out searching for us, and he won’t rest until he has found us and brought us home. That’s what the Gospel story is all about. Human failure doesn’t have the last word. The love of God has the last word. That’s why the Gospel is Good News.

‘What’s In It For Me?’ (a sermon for Sept. 1st on Luke 14.1, 7-14)

The Serendipity Study Bible is an old edition of the New International Version, designed to be used in small groups. For every passage of the Bible, it has a set of discussion questions in the margins. We often use those questions in our Wednesday afternoon study group, and when I’m doing my sermon preparation I often start by working through those questions for the passage I plan to reach on.

When I looked at the Serendipity Study Bible questions for Luke 14.1-14, this was the first question: ‘If you could have the best seats in the house, which house would you choose?’ I wonder how you would answer that question? For me, what I’d like is to go to a small concert hall where a guitarist I admire is playing, and be able to sit right in front of the stage so I can see what he’s doing with his fingers. With some guitar players, I don’t think I could do what they’re doing, but I understand how they’re doing it. But there are others for whom I have absolutely no idea how they’re doing what they’re doing! So I like to get really close, so I can see exactly what they’re doing with their hands. I still might not be able to play it, but at least I can try!

That’s pretty harmless, of course, but in some situations this desire for the front seat might be more insidious. In today’s Gospel, Jesus has a lot to say to people who always want the front seats—people who want the best deal for themselves and don’t care who they displace in order to get it. Whether they’re going to a dinner party put on by others, or throwing a party themselves, they aren’t actually thinking about the other people at all. Their first question is always “What’s in it for me?”

Let’s refresh our memory of the story. Jesus goes to dinner at the house of a prominent Pharisee. There are two things you need to know about these dinner parties. First, these were not private occasions. The doors of the house were left open all the time, and it was common for the curious to wander in and out while the meal was going on—especially if well-known people were there and it was likely there would be interesting discussion and debate. And this leads to the second thing: in the Gospels, these dinner parties are often occasions for teaching and discussion.

In today’s gospel Jesus tells the dinner guests two parables; the first is about not taking the highest place, and the second is about who you ought to invite when you give a dinner party. In each parable, self-interest is Jesus’ target. In the first parable, he warns against using the banquet as an opportunity for others to see how important you are. In the second parable, he warns against issuing invitations to your party out of self-interest: “If I invite Lord Caiaphas, then I’ll get an invitation to his party in return, and everyone will be able to see that I move in the best social circles in the city.” In both cases, gatherings that ought to be occasions for human companionship and fellowship are being spoiled by people’s self-interest.

So let’s think about what Jesus has to say about lining up for the last place.There’s a story told about St. Francis of Assisi, of a time when he was invited to a meal with the Pope and many other important church dignitaries. In those days before photo technology, people were a lot less familiar with the faces of celebrities, and when Francis turned up at the door of the Vatican in his ragged brown robe, the doorkeepers thought he was a beggar. So they sent him round to the kitchen to take his place with the other beggars. Francis didn’t complain; he went joyfully as usual, and was soon having a good time with the folks in the kitchen.

Meantime there was consternation at the high table; where was the guest of honour? Eventually it was discovered that Francis was in the kitchen with the beggars, and a message was sent that he should come to the banqueting hall. He did as he was told, sat down with the guests at the high table, and immediately began to share with them the scraps he had gathered on his beggar’s plate!

Obviously Francis was a person who had no problem taking the last place in the pecking order – in contrast to the people Jesus is aiming at when he warns us in his parable: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour” (v.8a). Nowadays we don’t often see this happening in a literal way. I’ve attended lots of wedding receptions and I’ve never seen someone marching boldly up to sit at the head table, only to be told a few minutes later “Madam, I’m afraid this seat is reserved for the wedding party!” But the attitude Jesus is talking about is still common. Let me point out two common examples of it.

The first is the inability to sit back and be part of the crowd. You know what I mean: there are some folks who have a deep-seated need to be up front all the time. They can’t just be ordinary members of the group; they have to be visible, they have to be leaders, so that people can look up to them and they can feel important. Don’t misunderstand me: real leadership, offered genuinely, is a real gift to a group. But the hunger for leadership, so that we can be recognized and looked up to, is poisonous and dangerous for the group and also for the person who wants to be a leader.

The second example of this attitude is less obvious; it’s when we’re always wondering what others are thinking about us. Many people are constantly worrying about whether others will like or approve of them. It’s as if they’re constantly checking a mental mirror, to see how they look in the eyes of others. The root cause of this is usually insecurity and a low sense of self-worth. We have an empty, aching space inside; we’re not sure if we’re loved, if we’re valued, if our life has any significance. We need others to reassure us of these things. But the trouble is, we can’t rely on them to do it, so we have to engineer situations that prompt them to do it for us.

What I want to say to you this morning is this: the Gospel of Jesus Christ comes down like rain on the dry field of our insecurity. The vital word in the vocabulary of this Gospel is the word ‘Grace’. Grace is God’s free and unconditional love for you and for everyone else he has made. You don’t have to earn it, you don’t have to deserve it; it comes as a free gift, and nothing can change that. As Philip Yancey says, grace means that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more, and nothing you can do to make God love you less; God already loves you infinitely, and nothing can ever change that. As another friend of mine likes to say, “God loves you, and there’s not a thing you can do about it!”

Jesus is inviting us to trust in God’s love for us, and relax in it. You don’t have to rush to get first place. And of course, you don’t have to rush to get last place either, if your motive is to get someone to invite you up to first place in the end! No—the Gospel way is not to think about precedence at all. Rather, you can relax, enjoy the feast, and share God’s love freely with the people who happen to be around you, in the secure knowledge that you are loved by God and nothing can ever change that.

Let’s now go on to think about Jesus’ second parable, in which he discusses invitation as a form of grace.

In June 1990 the Boston Globe told the story of an unusual wedding reception. A woman and her fiancée had arranged to have their wedding reception at the Hyatt Hotel in Boston, and as they had expensive tastes the final bill on the contract came to over $13,000, which was a huge amount of money twenty-nine years ago!

But then something unexpected happened. On the day the invitations were to go out, the groom got cold feet and asked for more time to think about things. When his angry fiancée went to the Hyatt to cancel the reception, she found she could not, unless she was willing to forfeit most of the money she had paid.

How here’s where it gets interesting. It turned out that ten years before, this same bride had been living in a homeless shelter. She had been fortunate enough to get a good job and get back on her feet, but now she had the idea of using her savings to treat the down and outs of Boston to a night on the town. So in June of 1990 the Hyatt Hotel hosted a party such as it had never seen before. The hostess changed the menu to boneless chicken—“in honour of the groom”, she said—and sent invitations to shelters and rescue missions throughout the city. That summer night, people who were used to eating out of garbage cans dined on chicken cordon bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served hors d’ouevres to elderly vagrants propped up by crutches and walkers. Bag ladies and drug addicts took a night off from the hard life on the sidewalks outside and sipped champagne, ate chocolate wedding cake, and danced to big band melodies late into the night.[1]

For this jilted bride to be, this unusual dinner party was an angry response to the collapse of her wedding plans. For us, however, Jesus is inviting us to embrace it as a way of life. Look again at verses 12-14:

“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous”.

This parable cuts me to the heart, because I have to admit that most of my social interaction is chosen on the basis of my own enjoyment. “I’ll go and visit so and so—that’s always enjoyable for me.” But Jesus is inviting me to make those decisions on the basis of unconditional love. I don’t think Jesus is literally condemning every family party or quiet dinner between friends. I think he’s challenging us to look for creative ways of reaching out to those who have no friends and no status in society at all. I find it interesting that the literal meaning of the word ‘hospitality’ is ‘love for the stranger’.

Many years ago when Marci and I were living in Aklavik in the western Arctic, we happened to read this gospel passage, and we were especially gripped by verses 12-14. I knew there were many parts of the teaching of Jesus I’d done a poor job of putting into practice, but I had to admit this was one passage I’d never even tried to put into practice! So Marci and I talked about it, and then we invited a particular family from the community to come and join us for dinner. The husband had been in and out of jail—in fact, we strongly suspected he committed a crime every Fall so as not to have to spend the winter in Aklavik. Both husband and wife were from families with a very high incidence of alcoholism and criminal activity of one kind or another. But they came, with their kids, and we had a meal together.

I have absolutely no memory of how the evening went, but it sticks out in my mind because it’s the only time I’ve tried to literally practice what Jesus says in this gospel reading. I don’t know if any of you have tried it; I’d be interested to hear if you have!

And to think of a less dramatic example, I wonder who you know who could benefit from a social invitation—perhaps for a cup of coffee, or an invite to dinner? It might not be someone you would naturally think of inviting, or someone who could pay you back. What might be the best way for you to reach out to that person?

Fund raisers discovered a long time ago that it’s easier to raise money if people can get their name on something – a brass plaque on a pew, or a list in a book. In this passage Jesus is offering us a vision of a different way—a way of freedom from slavery to self-interest. If we learn to live by his vision, we can interact with the people around us without quietly asking ourselves “I wonder how I can get them to admire me”. Instead we can concentrate on listening to them and loving them. We can initiate relationships with others, not for what we can get out of them, but for what we can give to them.

For some of us it might seem an impossible dream to think we could ever be that free. I put myself in that category. I’m well aware that my fundamental sin is self-centredness, which is why these parables hit me so hard. But on the other hand, I’ve met people who live the way Jesus is inviting us to here, and their lives challenge and inspire me.

We don’t always have to be silently asking the question “What’s in this situation, this relationship, for me?” Rather, because God loves each one of us out of pure grace, we can learn to live our lives in the same spirit, and discover in it the way of freedom, joy, and love.

[1]I first read this story in Philip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing About Grace?

Bent Out of Shape (a sermon on Luke 13.10-17)

Have you seen the spoon bending trick? That’s the one you do by holding a spoon between the palms of your hands with the bowl sticking out at the bottom, and then making it look as if you’re bending it, when in fact all you’re doing is dropping the handle between your palms. It’s quite impressive if you’ve never seen it before! It really does look as if you’re bending that spoon, and it’s quite surprising at the end to discover that it’s still straight.

One of the reasons it’s such a convincing trick is that spoons are quite easy to bend. Most of us have done it at one time or another! Quite often we do it when we’re trying to scoop rock-hard ice cream out of a pail. The handle of the spoon’s not strong enough, so back it bends, and hey presto! – you’ve got a useless spoon! Don’t try using it for soup, or you’ll spill it down your shirt front! When a spoon’s all bent out of shape, it’s not much use for anything.

Of course, we sometimes say that peopleare all bent out of shape. This might be a literal thing. When I lived in Ulukhaktok in the Northwest Territories there were two elderly women in the community who were literally bent double. I suspect they’d spent their whole lives carrying heavy loads on their backs, as well as bending down and crawling in and out of small snow houses. However it happened, it was now impossible for either of them to stand up straight. If they were sitting on a chair they could look straight ahead; if they were standing up, they really had to twist their necks to be able to see ahead of them.

And it doesn’t have to be that extreme. All of us, as we get older, suffer from aches and pains and find movement more difficult—and more painful—than we did when we were young. Sometimes we laugh about it: you know the old story about the man who bends over to tie his shoelaces and then thinks “What else should I do while I’m down here?” But sometimes the pain is much more intense and debilitating, and people find the suffering more and more difficult to bear.

But ‘getting bent out of shape’ isn’t only a term we use for physical ailments. Sometimes we use it for people who get all wound up about issues. We have our share of that in the church! You decide to change the colour of the carpet, or—dare I say—replace the pews with chairs, and some people ‘get all bent out of shape’! It happens whenever the familiar is replaced with the unfamiliar, whether it’s furniture, or hymn books, or music styles, or prayer books, or whatever you like.

Often people get all bent out of shape about things that aren’t ultimately important, and maybe we can laugh it off. But sometimes it’s more serious. Sometimes when church leaders decide to speak out about social justice issues, some church members disagree, and occasionally they get so bent out of shape that they leave. And to use a slightly different illustration, I think of a person years ago who invited a friend to church; the friend had no shoes with her, so she came barefoot. In those days the church was a bit more conventional, and some people got bent out of shape about it; the welcome was not, shall we say, overly enthusiastic. This is what happens in this sort of situation: people get hurt. Sometimes, sadly, when people get bent out of shape they keep others away from the healing love of God.

When we listen to today’s Gospel reading, it seems at first as if there’s only one person ‘bent out of shape’: the woman who had been bent double for eighteen years. But when we look a little more closely we see that in fact there are two people bent out of shape in this reading: one in body, the other in spirit. Jesus was able to heal one of them, but the other wasn’t willing to accept healing, because he wasn’t even aware how twisted he was in spirit.

Let’s picture the situation. It’s the sabbath day, so all sorts of restrictions apply. The Old Testament command was simply ‘For six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work’ (Exodus 20:9-10). But the problem with a command like that, of course, is that people immediately start asking questions about it. What exactly is ‘work’? Is cooking work? Lighting a fire? Can you walk, and if so, how far? These aren’t facetious questions; they’re the questions of sincere people who want to know what it means to obey God in their daily lives.

The teachers of Israel developed traditions and regulations about the Sabbath Day to help those people. Those regulations continue to this day. In Chaim Potok’s excellent novel The Book of Lights,the hero is an Orthodox Jewish chaplain serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. The winters are bitterly cold and the chaplain is living in what we used to call in the Arctic a ‘tent frame’, lit by an oil stove. The stoves are turned off during the night, and he wakes up on winter mornings to sub-zero temperatures. But he’s forbidden to light a fire on the Sabbath Day. Remembering this, his assistant, who is not Jewish, digs out the snow from the entrance to his tent and comes in to light the fire for him.

Jesus, of course, was constantly running into this sort of thing. We shouldn’t imagine that Jesus was on a campaign to abolish the Sabbath. Far from it: as far as we can tell, he went to synagogue every Saturday and used the day as a day of rest, just as the Law commanded. But the hundreds of man-made regulations were irksome to him. He told his followers that the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath, and that it was permissible to do good on the Sabbath.

So here is Jesus, on the Sabbath Day, in the synagogue. The men and women would be seated separately; the young children would be with the women, but boys over the age of twelve who had gone through their bar-mitzvah would be with their fathers in the men’s section. The Sabbath service consisted of readings from the Torah scrolls, a time of teaching based on the readings, and prayers together. The teaching wouldn’t all be done by professional rabbis or synagogue elders; it was their responsibility to make sure teaching happened, but they were free to invite anyone to expound the Law if they thought he was competent enough (I say ‘he’ because in those days it was always a man). Jesus was a well-known teacher, so he had obviously been asked to read from the Torah scrolls and then comment on them. This might have been previously arranged, or it might have just been a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing. Jesus would come to the front, remain standing to read from the Torah, and then sit down to teach.

The first person we meet in the synagogue is a person whose body is all bent out of shape. Let me read verses 10-13 to you from the New Living Translation:

One Sabbath day as Jesus was teaching in a synagogue,he saw a woman who had been crippled by an evil spirit. She had been bent double for eighteen years and was unable to stand up straight.When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Dear woman, you are healed of your sickness!”Then he touched her, and instantly she could stand straight. How she praised God!

I can imagine Jesus sitting at the front of the synagogue, looking out over the congregation as he teaches them. His eyes scan the crowd, noticing the expressions on the faces of the people. Some are happy, some are irritated, some are anxious, some are angry. And then he sees a face etched with suffering. Normally that face can only look down at the bare earth, but in the synagogue the woman is sitting down, so she can look at Jesus eye to eye. Maybe Jesus can read the longing in those eyes: if only God could heal her! Eighteen long years she’s been looking down at the ground; she’d love to be able to look up at the sky again!

And so Jesus stops his sermon and calls her to the front of the synagogue. This, of course, wasn’t a normal part of the procedure, and we can imagine the synagogue elders doing a facepalm when they realize what’s going on. But to Jesus, this wasn’t unusual; he’d had violent encounters with evil spirits in synagogues, and healed people there as well. “Woman,” he says, “you are set free from your ailment.” And then he lays his hands on her, and immediately she stands up straight. Can you imagine how she feels? Can you imagine the joy of being able to look up at the roof of the synagogue? No wonder she begins to praise God! She isn’t bent out of shape anymore!

But now we meet a person whose soul is all bent out of shape.The leader of the synagogue gets angry. “There are six days of the week for working,” he says. “Come on those days to be healed, not on the Sabbath” (v.14, NLT). Apparently it was okay for Jesus to teach the Law on the Sabbath, but not to behave like a doctor. Doctors and their patients had to wait!

But Jesus has no time for this sort of hypocrisy; he knows the Sabbath legalists aren’t consistent. So he says, “You hypocrites! Each of you works on the Sabbath day! Don’t you untie your ox or your donkey from its stall on the Sabbath and lead it out for water?This dear woman, a daughter of Abraham, has been held in bondage by Satan for eighteen years. Isn’t it right that she be released, even on the Sabbath?” (vv.15-16, NLT).

These Sabbath legalists remind me of the people in that church who got bent out of shape about the young person who came with no shoes on. There are rules about these things! People should dress respectfully! They shouldn’t bring coffee mugs into church! Little children should sit quietly with their parents, not run around and make noise! Gay couples shouldn’t hold hands in church! What’s the world coming to?

But Jesus has a different agenda. The Sabbath Day is a day to meet God. It’s a day for people who feel burdened by life to lay down their burdens. It’s a day for hurting people to find healing. When it comes to the Sabbath, as they say, ‘the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing’, and not get buried under the details!

So how does this apply to us today?

First, like this woman in our gospel reading, sometimes our bodies get bent out of shape.And I have to acknowledge right away that when it comes to healing the sick, human beings don’t have the same excellent track record as Jesus. In the gospels Jesus goes around showering healing all over the place. Young and old, men and women, rich and poor, with all kinds of sicknesses: they all come to him, and all of them get healed. The only ones who don’t get healed are the ones who won’t come to him, because they don’t have faith in him. But if they have faith—or even if their friends have faith on their behalf—Jesus is willing and able to heal them. He’s the strong Son of God, and the Spirit of God is working through him in a powerful way.

Since the time of Jesus Christians have not stopped praying for sick people to be healed, but even in the book of Acts the record isn’t so spotless. Often people are healed, but sometimes they aren’t. Even a great apostle like Paul has a bodily ailment—a ‘thorn in the flesh’, he calls it—that isn’t healed. He also has sick colleagues who he presumably prays for, but who continue to be sick. And today we pray for the sick, because that’s what we’re commanded to do, but we have to be honest and say they aren’t always healed as we would wish. Some people are helped by God by being healed; others are helped by a sense of God’s presence and support even in the midst of their suffering. But all are invited to reach out to God and ask for his support and strength.

However, sometimes it’s not our bodies that get bent out of shape: it’s our souls. Often this is not our fault; it’s a result of sins that have been committed against us. Think of a puppy who’s been trained up with lots of punishment, and then watch the adult dog cower in fear whenever its master approaches. There’s a wound inside, and the dog is forever scarred by it. Some people are like that, too: they’ve been wounded inside by the sins of others, and they spend their lives in fear, afraid to speak or act because they’re terrified of what people will say or do in response.

God wants to reach into these poor folks’ hearts and heal their wounds. This doesn’t usually happen in an instant. Usually it takes a long time. It involves lots of prayer, and also lots of love on the part of the people of Jesus. We’re called to be a community where people with wounded souls can find the love and healing they’re looking for. Unconditional love is the indispensable ingredient in that healing.

Sometimes, like the synagogue leader in this story, our souls are bent out of shape because of the way we see the world. The God we believe in is an angry judge who demands detailed obedience to all kinds of commands, even though they don’t always seem to make sense and don’t always seem very important. This God is the God of a certain kind of people with a certain skin colour and creed, and not the God of others. This God likes all the people we like and hates all the people we hate. His values exactly coincide with our own.

If this is us, we need to ask Jesus to open our eyes, because we’re as blind as anyone he healed in the gospels. The god we believe in isn’t the real God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—he’s an imaginary idol we’ve made in our own image. We need to learn to believe the truth that John taught us in his letter: God is love. ‘Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God.But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love’ (1 John 4.8 NLT). We need to remember how Jesus summed up the Law: love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. Everything else is just window-dressing.

Jesus lived his whole life on the principle of love: love for his Father in heaven, and love for the people God sent him to save. Anger and hate always bend us out of shape. Usually the process starts with anger and hate we receive at the hands of others. This anger and hate has the effect of making us in its own image, so that we live in anger and hate as well. Religion is no guarantee that this won’t happen; religious people seem just as capable of anger and hate as anyone else, unless they constantly remind themselves of the law of love, and ask God to help them walk in it and live by it.

If our souls are bent out of shape, Jesus wants to see us free, so we can stand up straight and see the world as God sees it. When that happens, we’ll rejoice like we’ve never rejoiced before. ‘When Jesus laid his hands on the woman, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God’ (v.13), and ‘the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing’ (v.17). When Jesus brings God’s healing power into our lives, the result is always joy, praise, and freedom. May it be so today, for you and me. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

God, the Anguished Parent (a sermon on Hosea 11.1-11)

I suspect I’m not the only parent in church today who remembers being nervous about the impending birth of their first child. Becoming a parent can be joyful and exciting, but it’s also an invitation to a life of worry and anxiety, self-doubt, guilt, and a strong sense of your own personal inadequacy! I don’t know too many parents who really believe, deep down inside, that they’re doing a good job. We all feel like we’re struggling to keep our heads above water.  And yet, as we saw last week, when Jesus is teaching us how to think about God, he invites us to say, “Our Father…”! In other words, Jesus’ favourite metaphor for God’s activity in our lives is parenting.

There’s a common caricature of the Old and New Testaments that says that the God of the Old Testament is an angry and scary God of judgement, and the God of the New Testament is a warm and cuddly God of love. In fact, of course, there are plenty of passages about judgement in the New Testament, too—anybody remember who actually gave us the parable of the sheep and the goats?—and the Old Testament has some tender and loving passages. And one of the most beautiful Old Testament passages about the love of God is our first reading for today, Hosea 11.1-11.

Of all the Bible writers the prophet Hosea is most adept at describing God for us in human terms. And he gives us some striking images while he’s doing it. In last week’s passage, God commanded Hosea to go marry a prostitute, and he obeyed; he married Gomer, and it didn’t take her long to be unfaithful to him. And so Hosea’s marriage became like an acted parable of what it felt like for God to take Israel as his lover, and then have her cheat on him. Philip Yancey says Hosea gives us the striking image of ‘God the jilted lover’!

This week we’re still using family images, but now we’re into a parental metaphor. This week our image is ‘God, the anguished parent’. Do you want to know what it feels like to be God? In this passage from Hosea, God’s heart is laid bare for us.

Hosea begins by describing the people of Israel as children of a loving God.‘When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son’ (v.1). God saw the Israelites suffering as slaves in Egypt, and sent Moses down to lead them out of slavery to freedom. He sent the ten plagues on the Egyptians and finally forced Pharaoh to let the slaves go. He defeated the Egyptian army at the Red Sea and led the people on their long journey through the wilderness. When they were hungry he gave them manna from heaven and quails to eat. When they were thirsty he brought water out of a rock for them. And through it all, he taught them his ways through the Ten Commandments and the other laws he gave them.

In verses 3 and 4 we see God describing Israel poetically as a much-loved child.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk. I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them, and fed them.

Note how this image usually works in the Old Testament. We’re not yet at the idea of each human as a child of God. Here we’re talking about the nation as a whole as God’s son. But nonetheless, the language is vivid and compelling. We see the parent watching anxiously as the toddler takes her first wavering steps across the room. Suddenly she falls down, but before she hits the ground she’s scooped up into the arms of her mom, who quickly soothes away any hurt.

That’s what God was like in the early days. Israel took their first wavering steps as a nation, and God hovered over them, picking them up every time they stumbled and soothing away their pain. God is like a mother overwhelmed with love; she can’t help but hold her child cheek to cheek, communicating security, love and peace.[1]

In the New Testament, of course, Jesus’ favourite image for God is ‘Father’. In fact, it’s almost the only name he uses for God. And he invites his disciples into this relationship too, teaching us to pray ‘Our Father in heaven.’ Note that gender isn’t the issue here; God isn’t a male as opposed to a female God. It’s the loving, caring parental relationship that counts. Even if we’ve had a bad experience with human parents, we’re invited to imagine the best possible parent and think of God in those terms: one who always loves us, always provides for our needs, always guides and teaches us and corrects us when we go the wrong way, one who protects us from harm. And for all this, of course, the framework is God’s steadfast love.

But now we come to the hard part. Israel isn’t only seen as the children of a loving God; they’re also seen as wayward children.

We know that no parent is immune from having struggles with their kids. Our church is named after St. Margaret, who was the mother of eight children. She’s recognized as a saint, but even she didn’t have a perfect record—at least one of her children turned out very badly, so we’re told! And we can go even higher than that. In Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, the father of the prodigal is meant to represent God, and he certainly comes across as a wise and loving parent. But still, his son rebels against him and takes off for a far country where he wastes all the money his father gave him in what Luke calls ‘dissolute living’ (Luke 15.13).

Israel’s rebellion against God is spelled out in verse 2:

The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.

What a contrast with Jesus, the Son of God! In the New Testament, Jesus’ whole life is defined by his close relationship with God, his heavenly Father.  But in the Old Testament, we could say that Israel’s life as a people was largely shaped by their rejection of God. This is the major story of the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, and even back into the earlier books that tell the Exodus story.

The specific form their rebellion took was idolatry: the worship of things that are not God. In other words, they rejected their ideal parent and ran off with another one – and then another – and then another – and so it went on. Note this: God isn’t giving in to a fit of jealousy here, like an insecure parent who complains because his child doesn’t worship the ground he stands on. No—idolatry is poisonous for us as humans, because so often we humans become like the things we worship.

We can see an innocent example of that in fans of rock bands who sometimes dress up in the same kind of gear their idols wear. I’m old enough to remember Bay City Rollers fans from the 1970s, all dressed up in tartan like the boys they loved so much! But far less humorous is the story in the Iliad of the Greek king Agamemnon, leader of the army that was trying to cross the Aegean sea to fight against the city of Troy. But the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, and the Greeks were getting incredibly frustrated. Eventually Agamemnon’s prophet told him the only way he could get a favourable wind was if he would offer his daughter Iphigenia as a sacrifice to the gods. And Agamemnon did that. He worshipped savage gods, and he became savage, just like them.

This sin is also mentioned in the Old Testament: some of the Israelites were influenced by worshippers of the god Molech, and they began offering their children in human sacrifice to Yahweh, the God of Israel. Yahweh is appalled by this: “I never asked this,” he says, “nor did it ever enter my mind!” And there are other things that seem to go hand in hand with idolatry in the writings of the prophets: injustice, cruelty, oppression of the poor, sexual immorality and so on. Apparently, to reject the God of Israel is to reject his moral and ethical teaching too.

This is not ancient history. In case you hadn’t noticed, idolatry is alive and well today. When we turn to created things and ask them to fulfil God’s role in our lives, we make them into false gods. Many people do that with money and possessions, or success, or popularity. In the scary world we live in, nationalism is a powerful idol for some people: loyalty to their country is the highest ideal they can think of.

In our culture these are powerful God-substitutes that call us away from the worship of the one true God. Christian conversion, to St. Paul, involves turning away from these idols. Listen to his words in 1 Thessalonians: ‘For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead’ (1.9-10).

This turning from idols to the one true God isn’t just a one-off thing. False gods are constantly tempting us. Think of how many times we fall for the ads that promise us ultimate happiness if we just buy their product. We’ve seen again and again that they’re peddling lies, but still we give in! So daily conversion involves intentionally turning away from the lies of those false gods, and turning back to the one true God who alone can give us what we’re looking for.

We’ve seen that we’re the children of the living God, but we’re also wayward children who tend to stray away from him and worship false gods. So how is God going to respond? Is it going to be judgement or forgiveness?

Let me read verses 5-9 again, only this time from the New Living Translation:

“But since my people refuse to return to me,they will return to Egyptand will be forced to serve Assyria.War will swirl through their cities;their enemies will crash through their gates.They will destroy them,trapping them in their own evil plans.For my people are determined to desert me.They call me the Most High,but they don’t truly honour me.

“Oh, how can I give you up, Israel?How can I let you go?How can I destroy you like Admahor demolish you like Zeboiim?My heart is torn within me,and my compassion overflows.No, I will not unleash my fierce anger.I will not completely destroy Israel,for I am God and not a mere mortal.I am the Holy One living among you,and I will not come to destroy.”

Here we are really gazing into the pain in the heart of God, aren’t we? What parent hasn’t felt this way? “I can’t believe she did this! How could she betray my trust like that? If I let her get away with it, her feet are going to be set on a path that leads to a very bad place. I need to stamp this out right now! But wait—if I do, she’s going to be really hurt! She’s going to think I’m rejecting her, and she’ll hate me for it. How can I possibly cause her pain? I can’t bring myself to do that. But if I let her get away with it…”

In this section we see God mulling this over. He contemplates sending them away into exile, but then he recoils from this thought. In fact, he sounds like a parent who says rash things in the heat of the moment, then thinks it over and in the morning gives a more measured response. Are there any parents here who have done that? I know I have! “No”, God says, “if I behaved like that I’d be acting just like a mortal—a human with a temper problem!” God will correct us, but in love, not in anger.

In one of his books Philip Yancey talks about a conversation he had with a Japanese friend about the love of God. His friend told him that in his culture father-love and mother-love are complimentary but different. Father-love is the love that pushes children to achieve and makes demands on them. Mother-love is the safe place they can return to when they’re exhausted or lonely or demoralized. Philip’s friend felt that his culture had over-emphasised the Father-love of God but under-emphasized God’s mother-love. We can see this tension in the verses we’ve just read.

How does God balance these two kinds of love? Surely this demands infinite wisdom on God’s part—a wisdom all parents long for! Sometimes children misinterpret parental discipline. “You hate me! I hate you back!” If you’re a parent, this pierces you to the heart! We don’t hate our kids—if we did, we wouldn’t care. No—it’s because we love that we feel the need to correct and train our kids. But the overall framework for all of this is the deep, deep love we have for them. Balancing the contrasting demands of the different kinds of love is what makes parenting such a tough gig. Ask God—he knows all about how tough it is!

 So we’ve seen that we’re children of a loving God, but we’re also wayward children. We’ve seen the dilemma God has—balancing what Philip Yancey’s friend called father-love and mother-love is a tough gig. Finally let’s look at verses 10-11, which deal with responding to God’s call.

‘They shall go after the LORD, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD.’

These two verses have a poignant quality to them. They remind me of a parent shaking her head over her children, saying “One day they’ll smarten up!” We can hear the sadness in her voice; she sees the pain her child is putting himself through because of his choices, and she longs for him to change his mind and change the direction of his life.

Our NRSV Bibles translate this in the third person: ‘They shall go after the Lord.’ But the New Living Translation puts it in the first person: ‘For some day the people will follow me.’ We hear God saying, ‘Some day—I wish it was today!’

God is committed to respecting the free will of his people, so what can he do? He can call—and I think that’s what the lion’s roar in verse 10 is all about. The lion is roaring to signal to his kids that the street lamps are about to come on, so it’s time to come home! The kids have been having fun, so the call is a bit of a shock. “Whoops—I guess we stayed out too long!” So they come ‘trembling’, says the reading—they’re expecting a scolding!

Remember again Jesus’ story of the prodigal son. The son asks for his inheritance, then goes off to a far country and wastes it all. When it’s all gone, and a severe famine comes to that land, he gets a job feeding pigs. That’s when he comes to his senses, and decides to go home. He makes up an apologetic speech to give to his dad, and I’m sure he practices it many times on the way home. Why? Because he’s expecting to encounter anger, not welcome.

But to his surprise, he encounters not anger, but joy. His father gives him a bear-hug and a kiss, sends a servant off for new shoes and new clothes, and throws a feast in his honour to welcome him home. Jesus says this is how God treats us when we come home to him. We’re wayward children, yes, but we’re still his children, and nothing can change that fact. ‘They shall come trembling…,’ says God, but ‘…I will return them to their homes.’

The heart of God is our home. We’ve seen that God’s heart is full of love for us, a love stronger and wiser and fiercer than the love of any parent who has ever lived. We’re constantly being tempted to stray from that home, but God is constantly calling us back. The welcome feast is spread out for us this morning. Let’s come home again to the heart of God.

[1]I’m indebted for this image to Paula Gooder, Hosea to Micah (The People’s Bible Commentary, BRF, 2005).

‘Teach Us to Pray’ (a sermon on Luke 11.1-13)

When I was a teenager and a fairly new Christian, a man called Vijay Menon came to our church to lead an evangelistic mission. During the few days he was at our church he stayed at the rectory, where I lived, and I quickly became aware of his prayer life. Vijay was an early riser; he got up every morning at 5 o’clock, made himself a cup of tea, and then spent the first couple of hours of the day in Bible reading and prayer.

This made a big impression on me. I’d already been having prayer times in the mornings, but they tended to be rather rushed. Vijay’s example challenged me to be more intentional about those prayer times, and to get up a bit earlier to give myself more time. He never gave me any verbal instruction about prayer, but his personal prayer practice was a real inspiration to me.

I expect something like that happened in today’s gospel. In those days, what we now call ‘private life’ was non-existent. Very few people had private bedrooms unless they were very rich. Jesus and his disciples would have lived in very close quarters with each other, and I expect they would have shared prayer times together. We know from the gospels that Jesus was also in the habit of praying alone, but when he did it, he had to go off by himself into the country and find a lonely place.

Our gospel begins by telling us that ‘Jesus was praying in a certain place’ (Luke 11.1).I tend to imagine this happening in the open country, with Jesus taking himself off to the edge of the group, closing his eyes and raising his hands and focussing on his Father. Perhaps he took a substantial period of time doing it. Maybe his disciples noted his intensity, the sense that he was in conscious contact with God, the sense that something supernatural was going on. Something about it got their attention and aroused their curiosity. And so, when he was done, one of them said, “Lord, teach us to do that!” The result was what we now call the Lord’s Prayer.

So what does Jesus teach here about prayer? I’m not going to make this easy for you this morning; I’m going to point out six things in these verses. Maybe you should write them down!

First, he teaches us that it matters who is praying.This is a prayer for disciples. Disciples are people who are following Jesus, learning to see life as he sees it and live life as he taught. And this prayer is soaked in the experiences and priorities of Jesus.

What do I mean by that? Well, Jesus experiences God as his loving heavenly Father. Jesus lives his life to bring honour to God’s name and to spread God’s kingdom by his words and actions, by his life and death and resurrection. Jesus speaks words of forgiveness, gives bread to the hungry, and wins the victory over the tests and temptations of the devil. Do you see the connections with the Lord’s Prayer? As I said, this prayer is soaked in the experiences and priorities of Jesus.

We disciples of Jesus are called to follow him and imitate him. So he teaches us to relate to God as a loving parent. He teaches us to seek first the kingdom of God and value it ahead of riches or success or anything else in life we might long for. He teaches us to share our bread with the hungry. He teaches us to forgive one another and even love our enemies, and to stand fast when we’re tested and tempted by the forces of evil. This is the life we’re learning to live as disciples, and it’s the life we’re learning to pray in the Lord’s Prayer. If we’re consistent disciples, our prayers and our lives will agree with each other. Living the life of a disciple will help us pray this prayer, and praying this prayer will help us live the life of a disciple.

So it matters who is praying: disciples of Jesus. Second, it matters that you pray with others. Nowadays many people think of prayer as something we do by ourselves. ‘You don’t have to come to church to pray’, people say, and we get the sense that what they mean by prayer is a person sitting quietly at home with a cup of herbal tea, hands spread out, eyes closed, praying to God in the individuality of their own head.

But true Christian prayer is not individual. Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not saying we shouldn’t pray alone—of course we should! But even when we pray alone, we’re not really praying alone. Every pronoun in the Lord’s Prayer is a plural pronoun. ‘Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, as we forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial’ (Luke 11.3-4). This is the prayer of a community. When we pray it, we’re joining a community of disciples all over the world, addressing our heavenly Father together.

Prayer together is the fundamental Christian prayer. Prayer alone is an extension of our prayers together. But whenever it’s possible for us to gather to pray, we should do that. That’s why Sunday worship is meant to be a priority for Christians. It’s not something we should relegate to the ‘if I’ve got nothing better to do’ part of our schedule. The letter to the Hebrews says ‘Do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some’ (Hebrews 10.25). We are a community of disciples, gathering together around the Lord’s Table, like a family coming together for a weekly meal—not just to enjoy each other’s company but also to join together in prayer to the God we have in common.

Prayer together keeps us steady. If the only prayer we have is individual prayer, it’ll be easy to neglect it. We’ll find all kinds of excuses why we can’t do it. Too busy. Too tired. Too discouraged. Too stressed. But if we have a commitment to meet together and pray, the commitment will carry us.

So it matters who is praying, and it matters that you pray with others. Thirdly, it matters who you pray to.“What on earth do you mean?” you ask. “Surely God is God? Who else would you pray to?” Yes—but it matters what you think about the God you’re praying to. Some people think the God they’re praying to needs humans to fight and kill each other so as to bring him honour. Others think God doesn’t really care about us. I heard of a Christian who once asked a friend what he thought about God. The reply surprised him: “The way I see it, God’s got a lot on his mind. World hunger, global warming, wars in the Middle East, AIDS and all that. So the best thing I can do for God is to stay out of his way.”

It makes a difference if you think you’re praying to a God who only has so much time and attention to give, doesn’t it? If you’re in competition with everyone else’s needs, who’s to say whether or not the answer to your prayer is going to be made on a Friday? That’s not a very encouraging thought, is it?

But Jesus encourages us to think of God as the best and wisest of parents or friends. He uses two parables to bring this message home. First, if your friend suddenly finds herself in need of some extra food because of unexpected company, you’ll help out without question, because she matters to you. Second, if your child comes to you and asks for some food, you’re not going to give them a scorpion instead of an egg, are you? We’re sinners, but even sinners like us know how to care for our friends and our kids! How much more will the heavenly Father care for us, his beloved children?

God is like the best and wisest and most selfless father or mother we could ever imagine. God provides for our needs. God guides us and helps us grow in wisdom. If that’s what you believe about God, you’re going to have no hesitation going to God in times of need and asking for help. And especially when you’re seeking first the Kingdom of God, so that the things you’re praying for are also the things Godis longing for—if you feel that way, you’re going to be quick to turn to God for help.

So it matters who is praying, it matters that you pray with others, and it matters who you pray to. Fourthly, it matters what you pray for.

The Lord’s Prayer is divided into two simple sections: God’s priorities, and our necessities. God’s priorities come first. We don’t come charging into God’s presence and immediately present our prayer shopping list. First we think about who we’re praying to, and we pray about the things that are important to God.

So we pray that God’s name will be hallowed. If we love God, then God’s good name matters to us. To slander someone’s good name is to smear their reputation in the world. So this is a prayer that God’s name would be known and loved and honoured in the world.

Obviously more than just the name is at stake here. Before I met Marci I had never known anyone by that name. Now, it’s the most precious name in the world to me—because I love the one who bears it. So for us to say ‘Hallowed be your name’ is a form of praise and an expression of love. John Newton wrote, ‘How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear! It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds, and drives away his fear!’ Obviously in this hymn, the name of Jesus is sweet because the person of Jesus is loved so much.

So we pray that God’s name will be loved and honoured, and we also pray that God’s kingdom will come. Matthew’s longer version of the Lord’s Prayer explains this: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.’ So we are praying that God’s perfect rule of love and compassion, justice and peace will be established on earth. This is a prayer that everyone in the world will have enough and no one too much—that the good earth God has created will be respected and cherished—that people will treat each other as friends and not enemies—and that all over the world people will love and honour God above everything else.

So we focus on God’s priorities first of all. But then we turn to our necessities. Jesus mentions three things: food, forgiveness, and deliverance from times of testing and temptation.

‘Give us each day our daily bread’ (v.3). This is a very simple prayer. It’s not a prayer for lottery wins or plane tickets or expensive holidays or success in business. It’s a prayer that we will know where tomorrow’s meal is coming from. In other words, it’s a prayer that we will enjoy the necessities of life. Note: that we will enjoy the necessities of life—not I, but we. So to pray the Lord’s Prayer is not just a prayer that will have the necessities of life, but that everyone on earth will enjoy them too. And of course, we can’t pray that if we aren’t prepared to change our lifestyle to help make it happen.

‘And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us’ (v.4). We are in need not only of food but also of forgiveness, because we all stand before God as sinners. The language of debt is used here, because love is a debt we owe to God and our neighbour. The great commandments are to love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself. How are we doing with that? The truth is, of course, that every day we fall short, and so every day we need to come to God for forgiveness. And we also commit ourselves to being people who extend forgiveness to others as well. Jesus is very clear about this: the people who can come to God and ask for forgiveness are the people who are willing to at least try to forgive those who have sinned against them.

‘And do not bring us to the time of trial’ (v.4). The Greek word can mean both times of testing and temptation; you have to decide from the context what the meaning is. I suspect that in this prayer it means ‘Don’t bring us to trials too hard for us, and when we’re in the middle of them, help us get through them.’

So it matters that we pray for the right things. We can pray that God’s name will be honoured and God’s kingdom will come on earth as in heaven. We can pray for the necessities of life for ourselves and others, for the forgiveness of our sins and for God’s help in times of difficulty. And we can also pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus says at the end of the passage: “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (v.13). These are the prayers that Jesus promises God will hear.

So it matters who is praying, it matters that you pray with others, it matters who you pray to, and it matters what you pray for. Fifthly—and this breaks the pattern a bit—it doesn’t matter that your prayers are long or exactly worded!

The Lord’s Prayer is short. Yes, it’s more of a pattern than a prayer, and we’re expected to add to it when we use it—to fill out each petition with our own particular concerns. But it’s not a long prayer, and it would seem to indicate there’s no particular virtue in praying long prayers.

Also, there are two different versions of the Lord’s Prayer. The one we use in church is based on Matthew’s version, which is a little longer. Luke’s version misses out some of the familiar petitions. Interestingly enough, some time in the early Christian centuries someone was so bothered by this that they changed Luke’s version and added the extra words from Matthew. When the King James Version was translated in 1611 those changed manuscripts of Luke were all the translators had, so in the King James the Lord’s Prayer is basically identical between Matthew and Luke. But in the centuries since then archeologists have discovered older copies of Luke, without the additional words. So most modern translations use those older manuscripts and give us the shorter version in Luke.

What does this tell us? It tells us that Jesus didn’t always teach this prayer in exactly the same way! He didn’t see himself primarily as giving a fixed, rote prayer for his followers to pray for the next two thousand years, although there’s nothing wrong with us praying it together. But Jesus saw it primarily as an outline of things we should pray about. When we pray by ourselves or in small groups, we should feel free to fill out the outline.

So it matters who is praying, it matters that we pray with others, it matters who we pray to, it matters what we pray for, but it doesn’t matter that our prayers are long or exactly worded.

One last thing and then I’m done. This has all been fascinating, but if all you do is listen to it and then do nothing, it’s not accomplishing very much. So the last thing is simply to say it matters that you pray. You learn to talk by talking. You learn to ride a bike by riding a bike. And you learn to pray by praying.

If you already pray every day, this prayer can help you focus on the things that really matter. But if you don’t already have a prayer discipline, the most important thing you can do is to go home, look at your schedule, write yourself in a daily prayer appointment, and then keep it. And keep on keeping it. The things we do every day have a transformational effect on us, far more than the things we do occasionally.

We have asked the Lord to teach us to pray. He’s done as we asked. The next step is up to us.