A sermon preached by Graham Low on 27 February 2022.
During the 1970s and 1980s I lived and worked in Poland. People I came to know and trust there told me very openly and often about their love for Slavonic people, which of course includes the Russians. But almost in the same breath they spoke of their utter hatred of the Soviet Union and its system, imposed on them for decades by Moscow, as well as in past centuries. It shook me. I had never witnessed such hatred before: it showed in their faces and in the way they spoke about it.
The people of Ukraine are also Slavonic. They must now be having similar profound and negative feelings, as they see events beginning to point towards re-forming the Soviet Union. Fear is now bringing the deep human instincts of flee or fight come to the surface for Ukrainians: as we now see many are fleeing, while others are fighting to death.
How may we respond to this situation? We can flee from awareness of it by ignoring it. We can write letters, go to demonstrations seeking to influence government policy, sign petitions, and contribute to emergency appeals. As Christians there is a fundamental call to pray for the people of Ukraine and for all who are involved in the events there. And as we pray let us be aware that we do so in the company of millions of other people. Today’s gospel about the Transfiguration reading reminds us that before this pivotal point in Jesus’ life, he went up on the mountain with Peter and John to pray.
As we pray we seek to enter into the mystery of God, the mystery which is described in today’s account of the transfiguration. We can thank and praise God for the gift of prayer. We can express sorrow for our misdoings. We can pray for all in need. But what is the very essence of prayer? Perhaps the spirit of our prayer can be captured in metaphor: a gift from God; a conversation by and with our soul; silent contemplation; an expression of wonder; acknowledgement of finitude; articulation of desire; a sharing in God’s trinitarian life; an art; raising heart and mind to God.
Prayer is full of paradox: it is a privilege and a duty; we do not know how to pray as we ought but the spirit comes to pray with us (Rom 8.26); we are asked to pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5.17); we are exhorted to pray regularly, yet to seek “mastery” is to miss the point completely.
At times like these we may be lost for words as we pray. But there is a particular alternative: to pray the Lord’s Prayer, which I have so often found brings comfort and spiritual help, particularly in intimate and sad pastoral situations where other words can be simply unhelpful. The words of the Lord’s Prayer seem to take hold of the moment and bring calm and hope: they bring healing.
Like a poem, we can understand quite a bit of what the Lord’s Prayer is saying, but it also says things of which we are not quite certain. Meaning and mystery come together, as countless millions have found before us. Somewhere, somehow, our soul may be touched. And somehow we may be drawn closer to Jesus, who first offered it to his hearers as a way to pray. And we may also be drawn closer to those who are praying it with us all over the world.
The Lord’s Prayer is a place for us to find new depths of thought and feeling, and also a springboard for the practical activity and good works which hold our lives together.
In just three days we begin the season of Lent. On the six Sundays of Lent we shall hear sermons about various aspects of the Lord’s Prayer. These will link with the six sections of the book we shall be using in house and discussion groups during Lent, called Thy Will be Done. This book is widely available. It was written by Stephen Cherry, the Dean of Kings College Cambridge. Although it was published at a time of fundamental change, anxiety, and uncertainty for us all, it is a prayer for all times.
The book is offered to us to explore again the vitality and freshness of the Lord’s Prayer, the most familiar and yet most profound of Christian prayers. The author shares insights from some of the greatest theologians down the centuries. It is written in such a manner as to provide daily analysis and anecdote about the Lord’s Prayer. The six main parts are headed: Heaven, Earth, Bread, Forgiveness, Temptation and Glory.
In addition to this book, some of you may be interested in a book written by Bishop Steven, as a part of the Pilgrim Course. It is called Forty Days of Reflections on the Lord’s Prayer. Copies of this book are available on the book stall at the back of the church.
May we be granted a good and holy Lent, as we hold the people of Ukraine in our hearts and prayers. Amen.