A sermon preached on The Sixth Sunday after Trinity
at The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete
July 28, 2019 11:00 am
Well, given these readings, shall I talk about prayer and forgiveness?
The disciples ask Jesus about how to pray. In the Gospel according to Luke he responds with one of the two version of the Lord’s Prayer. There are two versions in the New Testament, the one here in Luke, and another in the Gospel according to Matthew, and while they are not exactly the same they are close enough, and the slight differences suggest that they are rooted in an oral tradition that probably goes back to Jesus. The traditional form of the Lord’s Prayer which we use is a merger of these two, and in the English language tradition we add a doxology: For thine is the kingdom the power and the glory, for ever. Amen.
There are traditionally two positions for prayer, as described in scripture.
- On one’s knees. It is a position of humility and vulnerability. You cannot see well, your hands are fixed and you cannot defend yourself. It is very similar to kneeling before one’s lord and sovereign. One demonstrates one humility because when the Queen (or perhaps, more often these days, the Prince of Wales) knights you, a sword goes on either shoulder – when presumably the Sovereign could just as easily chop off your head. There is vulnerability, but also a possibility of receiving honour. From being vulnerabile one is open to things, to being taught.
- Standing with hands outraised. This is a position of receptive power, of joy and praise. It is something both Catholics and Charismatic Protestants do.
Of course, nowadays, we most often pray sitting down, it seems. It used to be that Anglicans were distinguished for the amount of time they spent praying on their knees during the liturgies, but a more relaxed attitude has emerged. Where we used to claim we had callouses on our knees, old age and a lack of kneelers leads many congregations to adopt being seated as the norm.
For What Do We Pray?
And what do we pray for? In Luke we read:
- Your kingdom come. We are not satisfied by what the world gives us, whether it is politicians and liberal democracy, economic well-being and the consumer society, or the distress of the world around us. Our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you, O God, as St Augustine put it in his Confessions (written 397-400 CE). The kingdom comes in Jesus, the kingdom of God is at hand, but it is not to be identified with the kingdoms of this world, nor is it identical with the institution of the church (although the kingdom is active within it). It is present whenever two or three gather in Jesus’s name, but it is also at the same time not yet here. In Matthew we also pray that God’s will would be done on earth as in heaven, and that implies that God’s will often is not done. So as Christians we are uncomfortable, restless, strangers in a strange land, legally citizens of the UK or Greece or Ireland or Canada, but in reality citizens of another place.
- We pray for daily bread – minimal sustenance. We also have confidence that it will come. We are no longer faced with famines. We do not pray to be wealthy or powerful or famous.
- We ask to be forgiven, about which I will say more in a moment, and God’s forgiveness of us is paralleled by our forgiveness of others.
- Finally, in Luke we ask God to not bring us to the time of trial. Reframing this, we ask that those soul-challenging occasions where we are tempted are avoided, that we are not pushed to the breaking point.
- Jesus then tells his disciples, in a brief parable and a few illustrations, to persist in prayer – presumably for these things.
The Power of Prayer
I often hear people talk about the power of prayer, as if it is the case that if we have enough faith God will do anything for us. But prayer is not about manipulating God, as if the Almighty is subject to the whims and will of human desires. Sometimes the answer to our prayers is positive, and they are granted. As often as not, the answer is a no. And then there are all those situations in which the answer is vague and uncertain. It is because we project our human malleability upon the divine, when it is in fact quite wholly other. No, the power of prayer, in my experience is different from this.
- Fundamentally, the point of prayer is that it changes us. It may sound as if we are trying to change God’s mind, but it is actually our minds which will be transformed.
- It is a spiritual habit and a practice. Just as if you change your diet you will see a change in your body, so if we pray we will see changes in our selves, our souls and bodies.
- If we kneel in prayer we will feel humble and vulnerable, and open to teaching.
- If we enter into contemplative prayer or meditation we will find ourselves becoming all too aware of the narcissistic monkey chatter of our minds. If we persist, we quiet the voices, and perhaps become attentive to the still, quiet voice of God.
- If we pray for our enemies we will find ourselves moving from anger and vengeance to dispassionate analysis and wishing their welfare. This is not to say that we give up on bringing the consequences of their action upon them, but we so in order to force them to refrain from malevolent action, and perhaps to turn and repent.
- If we meditate and reflect on the words of Jesus and the prophets in scripture, and think about the stories we hear and read about them, we will find our hearts shaped like that of the prophets and Jesus.
- If we stand to praise God in Christ in voice and action we will find ourselves moving into joy and gratitude.
- And so, forgiveness becomes a spiritual practice, similar to and complementary to that of prayer.
Now of course, many of us have been grievously hurt by others. So how can we forgive our offenders, especially if they do not acknowledge their suffering they have caused, if there is no repentance? Let me tell you a couple of stories.
[Trigger warning] A friend of mine back in Canada was sexually assaulted by her father, and needless to say, this was deeply traumatic. She told me about this – how she made a complaint to the police, and he was tried and convicted and sent to jail for a time. Then, after this, she said that she was able to forgive him?. “How?” I asked. “I had to forgive him, or else that suffering would continue to keep a hold on me. Only by forgiving him was I able to be free from the awful effects of his abuse.” Forgiveness is about us dealing with the past, not forgetting it but reducng its destructive power over us.
One of the more horrific aspects of American gun culture is the frequency with which people kill children in schools. One example is the West Nickel Mines School shooting back in 2007. It was no different from so many other of these school shootings, except that in this case the victims were all Amish children, between the ages of 7 and 13. The Amish are a type of radical Anabaptists. While many of them accept some modern technology for farming and carpentry, they reject much that we take for granted – electricity, smartphones, television, automobiles, and factory-made clothing. They drive horse and buggies. They are radical pacifists, speak a form of German, and do not participate in national programs of social welfare. When this tragedy came upon them they responded with sorrow and grief, and tore down the school and built a new one. The perpetrator, who was not Amish but was known to them, killed himself after shooting the children. Astonishingly, many members of he Amish community, including parents who had buried their daughters the day before, attended the funeral of the murderer, and expressed forgiveness. They even raised some money for his widow and children. A counselor who worked with many of those grieving, believes that
because the Amish can express that forgiveness, and because they hold no grudges, they are better able to concentrate on the work of their own healing.
This forgiveness is rooted in the Amish knowledge of Jesius’s teaching about forgiving others, and the fact that any undertaking begins and ends with the Lord’s Prayer.
The Power of Forgiveness
We are changed by God’s forgiveness given to us in Jesus. Likewise, we are changed by forgiving others.
This became an influential part of modern political life with the rise of “Truth and Reconciliation”. While it arose in parts of Latin America, it became very prominent when a commission was set up in South Africa by Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the request of Nelson Mandela. As the Wikipedia article states, its purpose was to bear witness to, record, and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, as well as offering reparation and rehabilitation to the victims. It was grounded in the Christian principle that a confession of violence could be forgiven, and it was a means for the nation to heal beyond the traumas of apartheid and violence committed on both sides. This became a model for other nations, including Australia, Chile, and Germany. My home country of Canada has had one as well, relating to the genocidal traumas of the Indian Residential Schools. An apology is not enough – there needs to be some form of reparation, to make things right, and an intention to do things to make sure that the damage is never done again. It is a slow, painful, and challenging process, and often fraught with controversy. That said, most places that have had one affirm the importance of truthtelling in the process of achieving justice.
Some people cannot see themselves as forgivable. And, indeed, it may be that some people will not forgive others. But God will always forgive us, and will not deny us. It does not erase the sin, there’s no forgive and forget, but there may be forgiveness and transformation.
Some people they read the version in Matthew quite literally – forgive us our debts as we forgive those who are indebted to us. Whether in the ancient world or the 21st century, the chronic persistence of debt is seen as an injustice. Bankruptcy was a novel concept that only came about in the modern era, and allowed individuals to get out from under the crush of owing money – or avoiding debtors prison, or quite literally becoming slaves. or simply the redistribution of accumulated wealth, there is a sense in which our relations with others cannot be defined by economics. While now it may seem to be associated more with crooked politicians and large corporations, bankruptcy was originally an act of justice and forgiveness.
And so . . .
God calls us to pray, as Jesus prayed.
God calls us to be people of healing and reconciliation, grounded in being forgiven and forgiving others.
By the grace of God’s Holy Spirit may we be remade in the image of God, may we be vulnerable enough to be teachable, so that we may be living icons of the kingdom of God to this broken and fragile creation.