Homily 24th July, 2016 (Proper 12C)

11:1He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 5And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. 9“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

In the last few weeks we have seen a phenomenon of brazen racism and fearmongering associated with names like Sonia Kruger, Pauline Hanson, Donald Trump. We’ve also seen the resulting backlash, which has often been similarly hate-filled and venomous.

These kinds of political expression stem from an understanding of freedom of speech which is highly individualised. I’ve often spoken of how liberal democratic societies like ours place the highest value on the freedom of the individual. In this case, it insists on the freedom of the individual to say whatever they like, whenever they like.

Both Trump/Kruger/Hanson, and those that oppose them often share the same assumptions – that freedom of speech means the ability (or even the obligation) to say whatever they want, whenever they want to say it, regardless of the effect it has on others.

In counterpoint to this, in our reading today, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray by saying, “Whenever you (plural) pray together, you (plural) should say this…” The entire prayer is plural, not singular. Jesus assumes that spoken prayer is firstly communal, and secondly, deeply formational.

In the Baptist tradition that I grew up in, liturgy was barely recognised, and certainly marginalised. If it was even known at all, it was considered Catholic, and therefore highly suspect. It was often regarded as stifling the freedom of expression that the Spirit intended. Repetition was seen to be meaningless rote activity. Yet what you often ended up with was the same pat phrases spoken from the pulpit week after week, but without any real thought or intentionality to them.

Part of the point of liturgy is that we, as the people of God, learn disciplines of speech which enable us to speak with one voice on the issues of importance – the way we name God, the way we worship God, the way we confess our sins, the way we receive the body and blood of our Lord. It is out of this shared voice that our collective and individual lives grow. In sharing liturgy we are disciplined by habits of speech which form us as faithful followers of Christ. By the way, liturgy comes from the Greek word leitourgia, which means “the work of the people”. This is the work we do together. This is where we recognise that regardless of our society’s fetishisation of the individual, and of individual self-expression, that the Christian response is to insist on disciplines of speech which reinforce our peoplehood. That includes an obligation to speak for the common good, not merely my own self-expression. Christian liturgy reminds us that all speech has the responsibility of being communal speech, whether that is amongst ourselves or in the public domain.

So too the prayer Jesus teaches his disciples to pray. I went out to visit the monks this week, and at lunchtime we were sitting around and the topic of Pauline Hanson came up. We were all grumbling about how she could say the kinds of things she says when one brother said, “I have a Pauline Hanson inside me.” The conversation stopped for a moment as the rest of us recognised that we too have little Paulines in us, and instantly lost any sense of self-righteousness that might otherwise have been there.

These kinds of recognitions are only possible as a result of habits of speech like the Lord’s Prayer – forgive us as we forgive everyone indebted to us, or the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The opening words of the Lord’s prayer, “Our Father” situate us in our identity as children of God, an identity that by definition we cannot earn. As such they form us as people whose identities and therefore lives are not our own.

Let me be clear that when I talk about disciplines of speech, this does not mean that we must adopt some bland political correctness or detachment in the face of bigotry, or that speech disciplined by Christian practice will not be offensive to others – on the contrary, Jesus was often the target of people’s anger because of what he said.

Rather these disciplines form the virtues necessary for us to be a people who tell the truth, rather than merely expressing our own individual feelings or opinions. It means that the way we speak will have in mind those who are most vulnerable, as we recognise them in and through the crucified Christ, and that we will take care not to victimise them further. It also means that when people say things intended to shock or appall, we will have the discernment to know how or whether to respond, and when to keep silence, instead of reacting in a way that furthers the cycle of confected outrage.

So let’s say this prayer together, as we find it in Luke.

Father,

hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial