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A sermon by Ruth Gouldbourne, preached at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church for the second Sunday in Lent, 25 Feb 2018.
It should be quite easy.
It should be quite easy to write a sermon around one of those phrases we use so often. One of those phrases that even if we are not using it directly, we are alluding to, and evoking in what we say, and in what we do – or seek to do. It should be quite easy to make sense of what we are doing when we pray this because it is at the heart of what Jesus preaches according to the gospel stories.
It should be quite easy.
Turns out it isn’t. Turns out that trying to write a sermon, trying to understand and reflect on what is happening, what we are doing - what we are being invited to do when we are given the words your kingdom come, your will be done is anything but easy.
It’s not that it's a phrase that is hard to understand. It has its complexities, certainly, but at the centre of it, we know what is going on; in this part of the prayer, we are seeking that the will of God for the creation, the world, us should be carried out and fulfilled, and that the context in which we live should be aligned with the context which is the rule, the presence and identity of God.
There are complexities, but basically, it’s a straightforward prayer – we are asking for things to be different from what they are, and we are asking the one who has the power to do it.
Well, there you go – job done.
Even if we are getting careful and spiritual about it; prayer is not a slot machine, we can’t make God do what we want by asking in the right way, or manipulating the words or actions around them in order to control it – even if we are rejecting that approach (and let’s face it, we always say are, and lest face, sometimes we’re not!), we can still rightly and with confidence assert that when we pray your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven, we are asking God to do what God wants to do – presumably. So, even if we take the line that prayer is about lining our will up with that of Gods and then asking God to do that, well, of all the lines in this prayer, surely this is the one that expresses that most fully. Even if that kind of praying – what does he want to happen, OK we’ll ask for that – is a kind of sycophantic approach that is appropriate to a despotic ruler who needs to be flattered in order to be kept sweet and prevented from having a tantrum….which is an odd vision to have of God, if we are trying to encounter who God is by listening to the stories of Jesus.
But maybe that’s just the preacher making difficulties where none exist. After all, this is the beginners’ prayer. This is what Jesus offered to the disciples when they asked him for lessons in how to pray; he said here is the pattern- he didn’t say go away and have a long time studying and doing inner soul work and deal with all your neuroses and complexes and sort out your image of God until it is theologically coherent and all the rest of it, he said, when you pray say this – our father in heaven, may your name be hallowed. Your kingdom come, you will be done on hearth as in heaven. It’s basic, straightforward this is what we need and want you to do for us. It’s prayer at is most forthright and simple. This is what we ask you to do.
Jesus has encouraged them to name themselves as who they really are; children of God, and to be as honest about God as our understanding can be; God as Father. Then he gives them these words.
We’ve called this series Living What We Pray. In this title is a conviction that there is something about our habitual words and actions that shapes who we are, moulds and sustains an identity that we might not even be fully alert to.
Think about it, if somebody who has known you for some time was asked to describe you by somebody who didn’t know you at all, what kind of attributes and characteristics would they come up with – not the physical ones, but the stuff that makes you you? And how wold they know that stuff?
I’m not suggesting we do the exercise now, but it can be a really enlightening one – asking somebody you love and trust how would you describe me? And for most of us, a significant part of that description would come from the habitual behaviour that we show the world – even if it is so habitual, we are no longer particularly alert to it.
One of the deep traditions of Christian nurture and discipleship is that of growing in virtue; of deliberately cultivating habits, attitudes, practices that shape who we are in ways that are in line with the identity we are adopted into at baptism; that of followers of Jesus, of disciples who imitate their master. Attending gatherings such as this regularly is one of these practices – regularly sharing worship, regularly hearing again the narratives of our faith regularly realigning ourselves with the values and convictions of the call of Jesus to us. Sharing communion comes into this category – we tell the story of Jesus death and resurrection, we share food, we ray for the world – all as a way not only of doing it in that moment, but as a reinforcing of the habits of living in line with self-giving love and risen life, of sharing, and of caring….the regular practice shapes ways of being, shapes character and identity.
Of course there’s lots of other regular habits that shape who we are – sometimes without so much intention and reflection; regularly only reading or listening to those with whom I agree shapes me into the kind of person who has no awareness of a wider world, or of conflicting ideas and how to negotiate them; regularly being in a context in which success and therefore worth is measured by – what? Well, for ministers, numbers… for others it may be profit or publications, or fill in the blanks….and if that is our normal context, it can become the way we learn, we are habituated to judge ourselves and others as our default.
Once we notice what is shaping us, we can become more deliberate about it. Regularly eating chocolate will shape me physically in ways that I might not value. This insight about habit and identity was one of the helps a friend used to lose weight; he developed the habit of eating like a slim person…and he lost a significant amount of weight; acting as, behaving as the kind of person you want to be helps you become that person.
What if prayer – this prayer in particular is something like this? We wanted in Lent to reflect as a church on what it is to be shaped as disciples, what resources are available to us as a community of the people of God to nurture our identity as followers of Jesus. And this was our question – what if, in praying, it is not that we are asking God to do stuff, and then sitting back and letting it happen or not – what if the habit, the practice of prayer is about becoming certain kinds of people; and the prayer your kingdom come, your will be done is about shaping us as that kingdom.
There are some presuppositions here of course. Centrally, to pray this is to assert that the world as it is is not what God seeks and wants – that is, the kingdom is to come, it is not here.
It may seem unnecessary to state this, but if we are thinking about prayer as shaping us this matters. For many of us, life is actually ok. Yeah, we’d like things to be different – our health to be better, our society to be a bit more just, our weather to improve, people to be nicer….but we are not living under a murderous regime, we are not starving or lacking water; it’s good enough….
For some, who are particularly alert to injustice and whose eyes are open to a wider context than their own immediate circumstances, it is of course quite clear that the world is not good enough. But for most of us, most of the time, life goes along pretty well.
Now, I certainly don’t want to suggest that we should all go about in sack-cloth and ashes, or that we should do nothing more than be present at the barricades, whatever the barricades are. But it has to be the case that, if we are praying this prayer fully and with intention, if we are making it a character building habit, then we will find ourselves open to the challenge that the world is not good enough, that the kingdom has still to come.
These words are very directly and completely focused on the Kingdom, the coming of the will of God within creation. And much time and many hours have been spent in discussing the nature of the kingdom, and how we might recognise it and what its relation to everything else is. But one of the things that is clear from Jesus teaching is that the kingdom is not something over there to be looked at as a specimen, nor is it something far beyond to be longed for as a faraway promise. We discover the kingdom from the inside; we find out what it is like by being part of it. We are the kingdom and without us the kingdom is not. Our identity is kingdom shaped, and who we are is what shapes the kingdom’s coming.
By hearing and taking seriously Jesus call to justice and joy, we are made alert to the places where it is not, and to recognising that all is not the fullness of the promise. If we are praying regularly for the coming of the kingdom, we are regularly acknowledging, and being shaped by the recognition that the kingdom is not here, and therefore we are more ready to recognise the places where it is not. To pray you kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven is to hear in our own speaking a challenge to the status quo – on earth as it is in heaven is the assertion that currently, on earth, it is not as it is in heaven. This is a prayer that demands that the world changes but it is a change that starts with those who pray it. It is not just that we will be committed to making things out there different. It is not even that we will be convicted about the ways and places in our living in which kingdom values are not what we practice. It is the voicing and therefore the owning of the possibility that what we experience as good enough, the places where we are comfortable and can live with things as they are may need to be reshaped and renewed, including our own selves.
For example, just a few aspects of the kingdom that Jesus names, as he talks about what it is to be a disciple; love your enemies – what, here and now, does that mean for you. What difference does that make to how you will live and act and think tomorrow? And you can’t tell me there are no enemies; there are those we cannot love – possibly for very good reasons. But the command still is love. And this is not straightforward. Does this mean the abused must love the abuser? Yes, it does. And then we are into asking what does that kind of love look like. And – and hear me carefully here – it does not mean reconciliation with the abused paying the cost, or keeping quiet about it, or trying to cover things p or any of the other horrific things that the church has all too often preaching in the name of peace and forgiveness. But it does mean taking seriously the humanity of the abuser and working out how to live in the same world in ways that sustain both lives – which will involve safety and security, which will probably involve punishment, but which must also involve seeking ways not to dehumanise.
But what about a less dramatic situation; the person we believe is wrong, politically, or theologically, or some other way that has an impact on how we function. How do we learn to practice love in that context. And again, it is not about agreeing, it is not about saying the differences don’t matter. It is about living with integrity and truthfulness – and about finding a way to live in the same world without killing each other.
That’s the coming kingdom; where enemies learn to love – and therefore not to kill. And if we are praying for the coming kingdom, for the kingdom to come, then here is one of the difference that we are called to.
Or again, Jesus points us toward the kingdom as the place where the rule of resurrection, not death. His resurrection is the sign of the kingdom, the promise, the marker that death is not triumphant over all, but is defeated and ended. And as we pray for the coming kingdom, for the will of God for life not death to be here as in heaven, what does that mean tomorrow morning? That we are directed to pray for eh kingdom to come is reminder enough that this kingdom is not just some sort of life beyond death that is also therefore beyond our imagining. It is something to do with her and with now; and in resurrection, Jesus didn’t tell his immediate followers, you’ll see me later – he met them in their here and now. Resurrection as a truth of the kingdom has a presence here and now.
So, what does that mean if we are committing ourselves to that prayer? What does it mean if, praying for the kingdom to come, we are affirming that death is not all-powerful? It might have implications, for example, in how we think about matters of end of life care. It might involve us in discussions about palliative care, about assisted dying, about decisions that need to be taken about continuing care, about interventions….
But there are less absolute places where death is a reality, and believing in resurrection, praying for the kingdom of life to come has an impact; one of the ways we stave off the death-threats around us is by making sure we have enough and more than enough – be that money or possessions, or love, or control…whatever it is that, if we did not have enough, we would feel under threat and experience distress, even fear. And the problem with hoarding is two-fold; most basically, it means there’s less to go round, and so there are those who do not have enough. And more fundamentally, it trains us and conditions us to put our faith for our well-being, even our being, in what we can amass and hold on to.
As we pray, your kingdom come, we are praying for the coming of a way of existence that is not dominated by death or the fear of death – a way of being that is free and fulfilled and flourishing and committed to everybody sharing that.
So what would it look like tomorrow, to live this prayer? Where is the fear of death in any of its forms shaping how we live and controlling the choices we make? And what would it look like to pray for the coming of a way of life that is rooted in the conviction that God is about life, not death, that the will of God that we are praying will be done is to do with living, not dying, with trusting in resurrection , not fearing annihilation.
What would it mean for the way we treat the planet; if the kingdom is about life and flourishing, what questions does that raise for a way of life that is predicated on destruction? If the will of God that we are praying for is about living and supporting life, what issues are we faced with regarding the food we eat?
Just as praying for the kingdom alerts us to what is not the kingdom, so it trains our eyes to see what is kingdom in unexpected places; to notice when justice is present, to recognise and welcome joy when it happens to us. The kingdom is more than a political programme, though it has political aspects, and needs a political edge. It is also more than a spiritual reality far removed from our mundane day to day existence. It lives and flourishes and hides within our encounters with the world as it is. Learning to see it gives us courage and imagination to live it all the more fully; learning to recognise love when it surprises, joy when it sparks out, justice when it will not be denied. Because the kingdom, as well as being that which we live into being, is also that which is given. It is given to us by those around us who love us and challenge us; those whose lives and energies have been offered in ways that have made our lives possible – for example, some of those who have given me the kingdom are the women who struggled and campaigned and demanded the right to a voice in society and in the church. By their gift, I can live in a world, in a context where Kingdom is to be glimpsed. As we pray for the coming of the kingdom, we are acknowledging that it is not something we can do by ourselves. We need each other – we need each other here and now, and we need those who have gone before; the kingdom bringers who fought against slavery, the kingdom bringers who campaigned for workers’ rights, for religious freedom, for education not limited by the ability to pay, for equality before the law; and yes, all of it is partial, but they have gifted to us more of the kingdom than they experienced.
And at the centre of that is the conviction that the kingdom is God’s gift to us. We cannot create it all by our own effort. It is what God is doing through the people of God – we receive and we pass on, we accept and we offer. And we can be sure, that when we pray for the coming Kingdom, for the kingdom to come, we are praying for something that God wants to give. And we dare to trust that because Jesus teaches us to pray this; Jesus, the one in whom the kingdom takes shape and is centred.
It would be sad if what we took from this was an exhortation to live better, and to try to do it ourselves. Jesus lived the kingdom and lived it out of his prayer. He was praying when they found him and asked him to teach them how to pray; the link for him between prayer and life is just a given.
As we pray this prayer; pray it with intention, conviction and habit, so we become what the prayer is; our identity is marked and shaped by these words. These words heard together in the context of the rest of the stories of faith and God’s presence in Scripture and in the story of the church and the world – the stories around us where we see marks of the kingdom and let them impact us.
Our habits make us who we are. Praying is a way of taking control of these habits, and lining them up with the call of God, so that we become ever more fully the people of God, the followers of Jesus.
Prayer changes things – because prayer changes who we are, and then we live as who we are, and that is the coming of the kingdom in ways known, to be made known, and ways that matter deeply.