Prepare Six Envelopes
A Sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Readings for this Service: Luke 11: 1-13
It’s rumoured that as David Cameron cleared his office at Number Ten Downing Street he left on his desk for his successor three envelopes, with a note to say, ‘Open one of these when you get into trouble.’ Apparently when the negotiations with the European Union started, Theresa May opened the first envelope, which said, ‘Blame your predecessor.’ Then when she lost the first vote on her Brexit deal she opened the second envelope, which said, ‘Do a cabinet reshuffle.’ Finally when she lost the third vote on her Brexit deal she opened the third envelope, which said, ‘Prepare three envelopes.’ It’s not known how many envelopes she left for Boris Johnson this last week.
We have all kinds of anxieties in our lives but they boil down to two. The first is this: ‘Am I living a purposeless existence in a pointless world in a meaningless universe, which however full of urgency and demand will eventually revert to nothing?’ The second is this: ‘I feel so vulnerable, so fragile and so alone, and life could go down the plughole at any moment.’ These two anxieties stalk our lives, such that for many people we fear if we actually stopped our frenzied activity, constant communication and perpetual distraction, and actually thought about one or other of them for any length of time, the panic would be uncontrollable.
How do we deal with these two anxieties, without fervid busy-ness or perpetual diversion (which together simply create a different form of anxiety)? Well, we’ve been given a gift, in some ways a very tiny gift, in other ways an indescribably huge gift, that’s 70 words long, and which we can recite several times a day – in fact as often as anxiety strikes. That gift is the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer appears in a slightly different form in Matthew and Luke’s gospels, and when we say it today we add on some extra words about the kingdom, the power and the glory that actually come not from the gospels but from First Chronicles. So today I’m going to talk about the version we’re familiar with, minus the additional part. What I want you to see is that the prayer we know so well is actually like six envelopes that Jesus leaves on our desk, any or all of which we can open when anxiety strikes.
The first three envelopes address our first anxiety, ‘Am I living a purposeless existence in a random world in a meaningless universe?’ Let’s take each envelope in turn. Here’s what’s written in the first envelope. ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.’ This tells us that there is a purpose: God wants to be in relationship with us; and that there’s something bigger and more significant than the universe: which is called heaven; and that this news is so precious that its discovery and importance is what we call holy – it’s the centre of all things, the orienting point of our lives and every life. I recall aged 11 doing a test at school. In italics at the top it said, ‘Read all the questions.’ Then it provided 12 questions, about all sorts of trivial things. The last question said ‘Put your pen down and don’t answer any of the questions.’ Which made all of us in class feel foolish, because none of us had followed the instructions and read all the questions. Only the last question made sense of all the others. The Lord’s Prayer begins with words that make sense of everything else. God is beyond everything, yet seeks relationship with us, and we must prize this truth above everything else. Simple, yet staggering. That’s our first envelope.
Inside the second envelope we read the words, ‘Thy kingdom come.’ Only three words, but so full of significance. ‘Kingdom’ tells us that not only does God want to be in relationship with us, but that full quality of healthy encounter, with God, ourselves, one another and creation, is what God has in store for everyone and everything. ‘Thy’ tells us that until God finally brings that full expression of healthy relationship, we’ll continue to live to a large extent under other forms of kingdom, whether of others’ devising or our own. Some of these may be bad, others not so bad; but whether bad or good, they aren’t God’s kingdom. We’ve all got our own checklist of how the world would be so much better if we were in charge. It’s hard to say ‘Thy kingdom come’ and renounce the desire to say, ‘My kingdom come.’ A lot of people have been convinced that all would be well if only they were in charge. Few if any have been proved right. And the word ‘come’ tells us that the kingdom is something God brings, not something we achieve. It’s great if our efforts align with and anticipate that kingdom; but that kingdom isn’t primarily about affirming us. It’s about saturating the world with the glory of God. That’s our second envelope.
Our third envelope says, ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ This tells us that God’s given us freedom, and we can use that freedom to depart from God’s ways or to seek God’s ways. It’s not that the universe is meaningless and our lives purposeless; it’s that there are multiple possible directions of travel, and our own will is part of that mix, but that we’re seeking to discern, discover and direct our lives in the trajectory of the one will that will ultimately prevail. This envelope also delivers us from any idea that all that matters in life is being ready for eternity. It longs for God’s will for formed and restored relationships to be experienced on earth now as much as it’ll be enjoyed in heaven forever. We best prepare for heaven not by withdrawing from earth and biding our time till we can be fully with God, but by recognising what full, true and restored relationships with God, ourselves, one another and creation look like, and doing whatever we can to seek that such relationships pervade our bit of earth right now. I don’t know if you’ve ever used a Magimix to chop and blend food for a recipe. Sometimes it feels like you have to put the parts together a hundred different ways before suddenly it all goes whizz and is done in seconds. Our lives are a constant searching for the ‘whizz’ that is finding God’s will. But be careful about searching for God’s will. Once you find it, you may find the living it harder than the searching for it.
Together these three envelopes address our first anxiety. They tell us that God longs to be with us and will finally pervade both earth and heaven. They shape our hearts to follow the heart of God.
Now for the second set of envelopes. They address our second anxiety, ‘I feel so vulnerable, so fragile and so alone, and life could go down the plughole at any moment.’ Here’s the fourth envelope: ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ The first three envelopes are all about God; the second three envelopes are all about us. ‘Give us.’ This is in the present tense. It’s about now, today. But remember in the Old Testament bread is always about manna. Manna was a gift from God to prove to the Israelites that even in the wilderness, God would provide for them. But it was also a test to see if they would be content to collect just a daily amount and not try to get enough for the next day too. And in the New Testament bread is always about the Eucharist. It’s always about believing God has given us enough by giving us Jesus; or striving for more – which turns out to be less. This is the great question: is God enough for us? Sin is always a sign that for a moment, a day or a lifetime, God doesn’t seem to be enough – so we go chasing our security someplace else. ‘Give us’ is the fourth envelope: a request that God will be enough.
Here’s the fifth envelope: ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ If ‘Give us’ is about the present, ‘Forgive us’ is about the past. Are we more scared about the past, which will come back to haunt us, or the future, which is full of unknowns? There are two painful things about the past: the things done to us, which make us bitter; and the things we’ve done, which leave us guilty. We want justice for the first set of things, so we can be vindicated; but we fear justice for the second set of things, lest we be condemned. ‘Forgive us… as we forgive’ is telling us we can’t have one without the other. Justice shaped by mercy for the first yields mercy shaped by justice for the second. Together they’re telling us we can’t live in the present unless we and God take steps to heal our past.
And here’s the sixth and final envelope: ‘Lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.’ This is about the future. It’s about our awareness of our own folly, and the stupid things we can and often do; but it’s also about the terrible things that can lurk in wait for us, against which we feel powerless. At Christmas 1939, George VI famously quoted the words of Minnie Haskins, ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’ ‘Lead us not… Deliver us.’ This is a statement of confidence that the God who’s provided for our present and healed our past can in the future be with us always.
If you’re saying you’re someone who never fears that we’re living a pointless life in a meaningless universe, and who never worries that your life is only a heartbeat away from falling apart, then I’m saying, quite simply, I don’t believe you. But if you’re surrounded by fightings within and fears without; if you struggle to believe that God is enough, yesterday, today and forever – then hear the good news. God has prepared for you six envelopes, and left them on your desk as the only advice you need. Open them, not just when you’re in trouble, not just when anxiety knocks at the door, but every day, several times a day. This is what they say. God is with you. God is coming to you. God will finally be all in all. God gives you enough for today. God heals the hurt and damage of yesterday. God will be with you forever, whatever happens.
Do we need anything beyond that? I don’t think we do. That’s enough. That’s plenty. That’s more than plenty.