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Sunday Worship 2 October | The disciples learn to pray

Updated: Mar 3

The disciples learn to pray (taken from the Children of God Storyteller Bible
Jesus was praying under a fig tree. When he had finished, his disciples said, 'Jesus we want to open our hearts to God like you. Please teach us how to pray.'
'Praying is easy,' Jesus said. 'God wants to know you and bring you close. Just speak to God like a friend and he will listen. God hears your softest whisper, and even when you can't find the words, God hears what's in your heart.'
'But how do we begin?' the disciples asked.
'You can start like this,' said Jesus.
'Loving Father in heaven, blessed is your name. May your dream of love and peace come true and may the whole world be made new. Give us each day the food we need to live. And help us to forgive so we may be forgiven.'
Jesus continued, 'What do you truly need? Ask and it will be given; search and you will find; knock and the door will open. Trust God in everything, for you are his children.'


That may not seem an obvious reading for a harvest service, but I want to think of harvest not just as thanksgiving for and sharing of food, but as a response to living as part of creation. As Mary Oliver wrote in her poem ‘Invitation’, “it is a serious thing  just to be alive on this fresh morning in this broken world”. If you have read much of Mary Oliver’s poetry, you will know that she also believed that joy is made to be plenty and that life is wild and precious, so I don’t think we should take serious to mean glum. I think that we should instead understand that being alive in a world that is at once fresh and broken takes thought and care.


And have we ever been more aware that this world is at once fresh and broken? I don't think I have. Our society faces deepening inequality driven by greed and self-preservation, oppressive regimes are reasserting themselves across the world, and hurricane after flood after drought is devasting the planet and destroying lives. And yet over three quarters of British people feel they are living more sustainably than they were a decade ago, the average life expectancy across Africa has risen by ten years, and the Dutch prison population has dropped so dramatically thanks to policies based on reform and rehabilitation that prisons are being converted into schools and refugee centres.


So how do we live in this fresh and broken world with thought and care? In the first place, I was glad to be reminded this week of Frederick Buechner's words: "The grace of God means something like...Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. I am with you." In the second place, I want to take us back to our reading, because I think the way Jesus taught his disciples to pray is the way that Jesus wants us to live. More than that, I think it is the only way we can truly live.


Let's start with the idea that we can speak to God as a friend, and that God hears what is in our hearts even when we cannot find the words to say. That line from the reading particularly struck me, because of an experience I had over the summer. While we were in Bournemouth, I took myself off one morning for a walk along the seafront. I wanted to pray, but I just couldn't get the jumble of thoughts in my head to settle into any kind of sense. And so I made a little pile of stones and shells, and then took a picture with the caption 'this is where I tried to pray and God heard the words I could not find'. Prayer is a particular expression of a relationship with one who is closer to us than our own breath, but the whole of life is lived within that relationship. What a place to begin!


Let's get into the prayer Jesus teaches his disciples now, which is of course the prayer we know as the Lord's prayer. In this version it begins: 'Loving Father in heaven, blessed is your name. May your dream of love and peace come true and may the whole world be made new.' We are probably more familiar with the language of kingdom, but I love this language of dream. Because God's kingdom is not about power or authority, but about love and peace. It is not a system of rule, but a vision for life. It is not a few minor adjustments to the world as we know it, but a radical new way of being in the world. And when we say 'may it come true', we are not vaguely hoping it will somehow happen, but committing ourselves to making it happen, dedicating ourselves to lives of love and peace. 


The prayer continues: 'Give us each day the food we need to live.' We ask God to provide because all things ultimately come from the generosity of God's creation, but of course God doesn't personally stock our cupboards. This line of the prayer expresses our desire that our needs will be met, but that relies on us as much as it does on God. It relies on our good stewardship of creation, so that the earth can produce its harvest, and so that the harvest is shared fairly. Too many people do not have the food they need to live, but I do not believe the failing is God's. It is the greed which leads some to take more than they need, which has damaged the earth and robbed the poor. Just as we commit to making God's dream come true, so we must commit to making sure everyone's needs are met. Perhaps that begins with a better understanding of what we already have and what we truly need, so that we do not take more than our share.


[Extra reading: 'The Whale That Wanted More' by Jim Field]


Back to the prayer, and the version in the reading we had today ends: 'And help us to forgive so we may be forgiven.' This line hit me harder than ever this week, because I came to thinking about how we live in a fresh and broken world, and so I saw it as about so much more than the hurts done to and by those we know personally. It is so very easy to become so very angry when we look at the injustice in the world, but we need to learn to act with forgiveness and grace towards those we hold responsible, or else we will end up perpetuating cycles of harm. And it is tempting to place all of the blame elsewhere, but we need to recognise the ways in which we have been complicit in injustice, so that we can do all that is within our power to make amends.


Our reading ended with these words: 'What do you truly need? Ask and it will be given; search and you will find; knock and the door will open. Trust God in everything, for you are his children.' I struggle with these verses, because there have been times when I have asked and sought and knocked and I haven't received or found or been answered. I imagine I am not alone in that. It's not that I expect to always get my own way, I am sensible enough to know that wouldn't be a good idea, but sometimes even my most reasonable requests don't seem to be met. And what about people who ask for their daily bread and still go hungry? Thinking back to some of what I said about praying for what we need to live, the best answer I have come to is that God does all that God can to answer our needs, but sometimes the world gets in the way. That is why this promise cannot be understood apart from the prayer that precedes it. When God's dream comes true, then God's word can be fulfilled. We owe it to ourselves and to one another to work for that to happen.

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