A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on July 24, 2022, by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Reading for address: Luke 11: 1-13
The story goes that a cricketer died and went to the pearly gates and St Peter said, ‘What do you really, really want?’ The cricketer replied ‘I’d like to be at Lord’s Cricket Ground – when the capacity had been increased to five million. I’d come in off my long run, bowl a dazzling off-cutter, and see middle stump cartwheeling back toward the pavilion. I’d then put my hand to my ear and hear the adoration of the fans, all singing my name.’ St Peter said ‘I think we can fix that up for you.’ So the cricketer found himself at Lord’s cricket ground coming in off his long run, bowling a dazzling off-cutter, and seeing middle stump cartwheeling back toward the pavilion. He then put his hand to his ear and heard the adoration of the fans, all singing his name; whereupon he was back at the end of his run-up, doing the same again. By the moment lunch was due, he’d broken all known records. He looked over to St Peter in the crowd and said ‘How about lunch?’ ‘No lunch here,’ said St Peter. So the cricketer played on, and started to get tired, and he shouted over to St Peter, ‘How about a break. Surely we must get to the end of the over.’ ‘No breaks here, said St Peter, ‘This is eternity.’ ‘You mean,’ said the cricketer, ‘I’m going to spend eternity simply cleaning out middle stump time after time?’ ‘Yup,’ said St Peter. ‘Sounds more like hell than heaven to me,’ said the cricketer. ‘It’s what you wanted,’ said St Peter.
Discipleship is about learning to want the right things. The prayer often called the Lord’s Prayer trains us to ask for the right things. The prayer that begins Our Father is actually five prayers. The first and last of these frame the prayer by talking about and honouring God, with phrases like Thy will be done, and Thine is the kingdom. In between are three direct requests.
The first request is, ‘Give us.’ ‘Give us today our daily bread.’ In other words, help us live in the present tense. Let us not be so burdened by guilt or scarred by hurt that we live in the past, and let us not be so anxious about the unknown or driven by a particular goal that we become prisoners of the future. Give us enough, says the prayer. Don’t give us so much that we don’t know sensibly what to do with it or so little that we can’t see past our own need. Make us attentive, alert, present. Whenever you see a person who’s so sleepy or so angry they can’t hold your gaze you see a person who can’t stay in the present because they’re overwhelmed by the past. Whenever you see a person who can’t look you in the eye because they’re fumbling for their mobile phone or fiddling with their appearance you see a person who can’t stay in the present because they’re distracted by the future. ‘Give us.’ That’s a request to be given the grace to live in the present.
And then there’s ‘Forgive us.’ In other words, take away the burden of the things we have done and the burden of the things others have done to us. Christianity means many different things to many different people, but as far as I’m concerned this is the business end of the operation: discovering forgiveness. I want to say a few words about what forgiveness means.
You may try to be nice about it. You may try to pretend it didn’t happen in the hope that will make it go away. But one way or another, sooner or later, you realise you’ve been done a terrible wrong. And then, quite probably, you pass through a moment of hatred for the one who hurt you. This hatred may take you by surprise – it may be such a powerful feeling it takes over your life. You may be confused or ashamed or alarmed that you could feel such hatred. Later you may realise that hatred was a kind of self-protection. It was a refusal to be crushed, a repudiation of something not right. It was an assertion of your determination to go on living and not be destroyed by the hurt. That kind of hatred can consume you, at least for a time. But eventually you come to be able to tell a bigger story, a story in which you can recognise the deluded motives of the person that damaged you. You realise that the people who hurt you didn’t really know what they were doing, even if they thought they did. And so to offer forgiveness doesn’t mean to cancel your earlier hatred, but to allow yourself to be gently dispossessed of that hatred, as you recognise that that hatred was part of a whole series of events, mostly outside your control.
That’s what it means to say ‘Forgive us… as we forgive.’ It means allowing ourselves to be dispossessed of our hatred. And of course others will need to be dispossessed of their hatred if they are to be reconciled with us. It doesn’t mean wrong things weren’t done: it means saying ‘Those wrong things done to me or by me will not for ever determine the meaning of my life.’ To be permanently consumed by hatred or resentment is to imprison yourself, because it’s to confine yourself to a world in which the only things that matter are the bad things that have been done to you. And that’s a very small world. People often say ‘How can I forgive if the other person doesn’t say sorry?’ The answer, I believe, is that if you allow yourself to be dispossessed of your hatred, and begin to see the misdeed as part of a whole world gone astray, you can forgive. But that’s not the same as being reconciled, which almost always requires one or both parties to say sorry. To be reconciled usually involves you, if you’re the hurt party, letting go of the idea that the one who hurt you will ever fully understand what they’ve done. ‘Forgive us.’ That’s a prayer to be given back the past.
And then the last request in the Lord’s Prayer is about the future. ‘Deliver us.’ It’s about offering God our fear. Our fear is that the future will bring challenges that are too much for us, either because we are weak or because the challenges are superhuman. This third request comes in two halves. There’s our fear of ourselves: ‘Lead us not into temptation’. And then there’s our fear of what lies outside us ‘Deliver us from evil’. However much you may present to the world a demeanour of calmness and contentment, my guess is you still have in your heart a good deal of fear. There’s a lot you don’t know about yourself, and this prayer is a plea that you won’t be put in a situation that’s too much for you. Lead us not into temptation. Don’t let me grow into a person who one day can’t recognise the ideals I hold dear today.
And of course none of us knows what lies around the corner that we can’t control at all, so the last request is ‘Deliver us.’ This prayer comes last for a reason. If we deeply trust and deeply know that we have, and will continue to have, everything we need; and if we’ve been released from the burdens of the past, the burden of hatred and the burden of guilt; then there’s only one request left: ‘Deliver us from that which is bigger than us and can destroy us.’
I once spent some time in a prison. I said to a man I met there, there are three things you need to ask for – give us, forgive us, deliver us. All you need for the present, the past, the future. The prisoner clearly understood what I was referring to. I said to him, I wonder which of these prayers you find hardest to say. Give me, forgive me, deliver me. I wonder which of these is your biggest fear. He said, ‘None of them.’ I asked him if there was a story behind his answer. He said when he was five years old his mother left and there was just him and his father in the house. His father was often drunk. So he got used to taking money out of his father’s pocket and doing whatever he had to do to get by. He wasn’t afraid of anything. Over the years of his growing-up he’d insulated himself from fear. But in the process he’d cut himself off from what he really needed.
Think about that man for a moment. He’d tried to create a life for himself where he would never need to say this prayer. Where he could block out the past, with all the hurt he’d received and the damage he’d done. Where he convinced himself there was nothing to be gained by thinking about the future. And where in the present he made sure he didn’t depend on anyone. He was living a truly impoverished life.
But you have the chance today to walk into a truly abundant life. You have the chance to make the past and the future your friend. I commend to you this prayer. It contains all of your life before God. For the present, Give us what we need, and the grace to recognise what matters. For the past, forgive us what we can’t undo, as we forgive what others have done to us. And for the future, don’t let us be taken to something that’s too much for us, or face something that will destroy us. Give us, forgive us, deliver us. When you haven’t got a prayer, try this one. Amen.