Vicar's Sermon - Advent Sunday 2015

Advent 1: November 29th 2015

Apparently the Archbishop of Canterbury was ‘kicking himself’ after the interview he gave last week which gave the impression that he doubted God’s presence. He said in this week’s Church Times that he should have realised his comments would have been taken out of context by editors. ‘I was asked whether events like Paris ever caused me to doubt and question. Foolishly, I said exactly what I thought. The essence of my answer was that everyone has moments when they question things, and one sees that in the Psalms...When there are tragedies like Paris...when evil seems to cover the face of the earth, then we should be like the psalmist.’

Over the river from Lambeth Palace in Church House the Church of England’s press team were having a much better week. Digital Cinema Media (DCM) had decided to ban the CofE from screening an ad showing people saying the Lord’s prayer. On the surface, this might appear to be a bad news story but actually the ban has resulted in half a million people seeing the ad already without the church having to pay for the privilege: which to me seems quite a good news story.  Apparently DCM have a policy not to show religious advertisements...unfortunately for them it is not written down...yet., which was a bit of an own goal because it smacked of ‘making things up as they went along’.  As the story got into its stride David Cameron declared he thought the affair was ‘ridiculous’. The Equality and Human Rights Commission said that it, too, was concerned about the ban. “Freedom to hold a religion and freedom to express ideas are essential British values. We are concerned by any blanket ban on adverts by all religious groups.”  Even Richard Dawkins found nothing offensive in the idea of saying the Lord’s prayer in an advertisement...some would say we had been privileged to witness a miracle.  On Tuesday the Bishop of Chelmsford rammed home the seriousness of the issue in the House of Lords saying the affair begged questions of what sort of society we want to live in and the place of freedom of speech and the role of faith in our country.

The only fly in the ointment for me about the Lord’s prayer ban was the comment ‘what could possibly be offensive about the Lord’s prayer’ because, when you think about it the Lord’s prayer contains some pretty strong stuff.

Our Father: Both words offer a challenge. Who is the ‘our’? Is Jesus speaking of me...and people like me? Is the ‘our’ in the prayer said in contrast to someone else’s ‘their’. Is God on my side but not on yours?  If God is the Father of us all then those people who speak a different language to me, who eat different food and have different customs that I find hard to understand...they are my brothers and sisters. And when we use the word Father of God we are making a statement of faith that says that above and beyond and deep within this world there is One who is at least personal ...who can be known and addressed and prayed to with confidence, who wants to hear from His children. Even to pray these words is to break with our modern culture that finds the whole idea of praying alien...something done by strange people with odd beliefs.

Which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name: Perhaps or senses have been dulled by all then other ads at the cinema...where all there is to this world is more and better and bigger but Jesus’ prayer reaches out to another layer of existence...there is ‘heaven’ and the things of heaven to be factored into our lives. We touch these things through art and music, through beauty and sacrifice, in our loves and losses but we struggle to voice them...except in prayer. And for all the language of ‘respect’ we are capable of devaluing the most sacred aspects of our lives – ours after all is a society where the abuse of children by those closest to them has been carried out on a huge scale and where the language of sanctity has no meaning.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven: Did Richard Dawkins not spy the challenge in these words? Did he overlook the fact that every time these words are prayed Christians confess an allegiance that trumps their allegiance of family, kin, country or state. God’s rule is what we pray for: God’s Kingdom on earth...not just as an idea but a reality. This is the danger that the Roman Emperors of old saw all too well back in the first days of the church. They saw a fifth column of Christians who prayed for the downfall of the established order and looked for something different, that created alliances with fellow believers that crossed national boundaries, a people who owed no respect to the powers that be and who were prepared to stand against  them in the name of another Lord. It isn’t possible surely to pray these words and not dream or work for a new world to come into being...are the nation’s cinema goers up for this?

Give us this day our daily bread: Enough really is enough. What a contrast this prayer offers in the week that held Black Friday and promised huge excesses in spending.  What a contrast this prayer would offer alongside the ads for new cars, new drinks, luxury holidays and glittering jewellery that normally precede films at the cinema? Receiving all of life as a gift from God: entrusted with his gifts to share. Again, this is tough stuff – no simple prayer to be rattled through at speed. This is the prayer that hits our spending patterns, that asks whether we are really happier with all the stuff we don’t need.

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us: Do we believe in forgiveness in modern Britain – I wonder. Sometimes our newspapers are so cruel, so utterly heartless. Wilfully misquoting. Purposely demonising, twisting, manipulating. There is a hardness in public life that cannot be owned by these words, a pettiness in the way people act that ‘makes it all about me’ – that can’t see beyond the smallest of perceived hurts, that lashes out physically..or verbally...or gets its own back online through social media. There’s not a lot of grace about at times.

And none of us likes saying that we need help – Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil- It is a sure sign of weakness to ask for help. We want to be independent, owing nothing to anyone. Foolishly believing that we are ‘self made men and women’ when all that we have is gift.

In the end the Lord’s prayer advert dares to challenge the way we see the world. It sets before us all the Presence of God and the call to acknowledge that His  ‘is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever’.

A bad hair day for Archbishop Justin and the broadcasters but a ‘blinder’ played by the Press office at Church House. Will we see the advert in the cinemas? Probably not. To be honest I’m not sure whether I want to preface 007’s latest with the Lord’s prayer...and once the CofE places an Ad does that mean that some of the nation’s stranger expressions of faith might have free reign in the cinema too? I don’t think I’d be too keen on that. Anyhow, now you can see the Ad on the Church Facebook site and make your own mind up about it...but one thing you can’t say about the Lord’s prayer is that it is inoffensive. This prayer rocks the foundations of our lives and points us to a better way of living and being before God. It asks us to change the direction of our living: perhaps our Advent resolution at the beginning of this new church year might be to pay it more attention as we pray it for then we might become the answer to our own prayer.