Friday, 13 December 2013

The Lord's Prayer: A Manifesto?

Sermon preached at Westgate Chapel (Unitarian), Wakefield, Sunday 8 December 2013.

An old joke suggests that Unitarians sing hymns very slowly because we are always reading one or two lines ahead to see which words we can or cannot sing. I think the same is true of prayer… So this afternoon I’d like to look beyond the literal words of the “Our Father” and try to see what it might mean to a Unitarian congregation in the 21st century.

I believe the Lord’s Prayer is more than just a prayer. It is very bold declaration – a manifesto – for how we want to live.  The liberal theologian John Dominic Crossan says of the Lord’s Prayer that

“[It] is …  both a revolutionary manifesto and a hymn of hope.  It is revolutionary, because it presumes and proclaims the radical vision of justice that is the core of Israel’s biblical tradition.  It is a hymn, because it presumes and produces poetic techniques that are the core of Israel’s biblical poetry.” 

After the introductory appeal to "[Our] Father", the first statement of the prayer is, "Your kingdom come." But what do we mean by "The Kingdom"? As a politico-religious metaphor, it suggests a time when God is "king" and it is therefore a direct challenge to all political systems - something that is scarily on the rise amongst the Christian Right (I prefer Christian Wrong) who advocate a fundamentalist theocracy which would embarass the Spanish Inquisition....

But there is a deeper meaning.

In the New Testament Jesus describes the Kingdom of God with metaphor and simile – “like a mustard seed”; “a widow’s mite.” Only once does he say what he believed the Kingdom to be: “The Kingdom of God is within you”. Our very own Rev. Goodwyn Barmby had this to say on the matter:

God is the common Entity, the Universal Being – his habitation is in the hearts of all human beings – that all are in his image and he is in all; and moreover, that in virtue of this common or universal divine presence in Humanity, all have a communal nature…

 In other words God is within us all and the Kingdom of God is not some nice idea, to be waited or hoped for, somewhere where we go when we die but something to be built here, on earth. It is something to be lived. It is a vision of a transformed world. Jewish sources from the time of Jesus portray this kingdom as a time of plenty: “Life without care” in which “springs of wine, honey and milk” flow on an earth, which will bear “more abundant fruits”.  According to the 2nd Century Hellenistic Jewish mystical books the Sibylline Oracles the kingdom of God will bring an end to inequality and violence:

 The earth will belong equally to all, undivided by walls, or fences… Lives will be in common and wealth will have no division. For there will be no poor man there, no rich, and no tyrant, no slave. Further, no one will be either great or small anymore. No kings, no leaders. All will be on a par together.”

This connection between inequality and the well being of all is found in the Beatitudes, in the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells the poor and hungry they are blessed and condemns those who are rich and well-regarded.  In the version of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke, the phrase “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven” is omitted but it does appear in the version in Matthew.  The author of Luke is far more concerned with practical matters on earth, as apparent by the next statement “Give us each day our daily bread” (vv.3).  The anti-hunger advocacy group Bread for the World has pointed out that a commitment to a way of living where our daily bread is provided (not just mine) means a concrete commitment to end hunger in a world of inequality. Hunger is just as much a function of inequality in our world as it was in Jesus’.

The next statement, “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us,” (vv.4) places the focus squarely on us as individuals. While it is tempting to read this verse as a reference to sins only (with debt as a metaphor for sin), crushing debt was a reality and preoccupation of First Century Jesus-followers, just as it is today. The BBC recently reported some 18% of UK adults have a “ serious financial issues” relating to debt – credit cards, bank loans, student loans, pay-day loans that the Archbishop of Canterbury has been criticising – people have been taking out just to stay on an even keel.  Those Jesus-followers who worshiped in the Temple were not only subject to Roman taxes, but they were also subject to the Temple tax.  When a landowner was unable to pay (typically) his taxes, he would often give up his home, becoming a tenant farmer.  If his inability to pay debt continued, he or his family might end up as debt slaves.  Under Mosaic law, the seventh or Sabbath year was designated as the year that all debt slaves would be set free and all debts forgiven (Deuteronomy 15).

The point here is that a vision of an end to inequality in the world  - especially economic inequality - was central to the notion of justice in Mosaic law, and it was central to Luke’s presentation of the Our Father. What would a world look like that was characterized by regular debt forgiveness? … 

When we say the “Our Father”, are we just mumbling through a rote prayer that we were taught as children; are we looking ahead for words we cannot say; or are we at least thinking about aligning ourselves with a way of living, where daily bread is provided for all, where all are treated equally and where all debts have been forgiven?  We don’t have to accept the theology to get the message, the call to action. You don't have to have a theistic belief system or morality to understand or be part of this manifeso challenging food and financial inequality. 

Are we willing to declare Our Father’s manifesto, both in prayer and in action? If not, why not?

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