St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga

Support for Dementia Carers

Gordon Uniting Church are exploring the possibility of a support group for carers of Dementia sufferers, coordinated by a psychologist, with a parallel group for Dementia sufferers themselves to allow the carers to attend.

They are currently testing the levels of interest, so if you think you might be interested, or know someone who might benefit, please let Chris know. If you’d like to know more, you can contact Natalie Cheesmond on 02 9498 6729.

Live it!

Psalm 46 | Matthew 7:13-29
So today we come, at last, to the end of the sermon on the mount – three chapters of concentrated spiritual, practical, and ethical teaching. It’s taken us eight Sundays to work our way through, and given the amount that I’ve had to leave out when deciding what to talk about, I’m sure that we could have spent many times as long. Yet these words, probably, as I said at the outset, not so much a recording of a particular sermon that Jesus preached, but more a collection of his teaching from various occasions, public and private, collated by Matthew into the form it takes today, could be read aloud in rather less time than it takes to listen to a typical one of sermons. For a preacher, that’s a rather sobering thought: what, we have to ask ourselves, are we playing at, if Jesus could say so much more with so many fewer words. But then again, he was Jesus, so maybe we don’t have to feel too bad about it.

So here, the teaching is brought to a conclusion with a challenge, and with three warnings: or rather, with the same warning, three times.

First, though, the challenge: the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it … the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. In some ways these seem to me to be some of the hardest words of all: is it really credible, looking around you, that the majority of people are taking “the road that leads to destruction”? That only a few have found, or will find, the road to life?

Now in many Christian circles these words are heard as talking about people’s eternal fate: that it doesn’t matter how well people seem to be living, if they haven’t made the right commitment, believed the right thing, prayed the right prayer, been baptised in the right way, they are doomed to destruction. But nothing in the whole sermon on the mount gives us any reason to believe that in these words Jesus was speaking of life or destruction after death: the vast majority of the teaching is about life very much in the present. And it’s easy enough to see at least some examples of ways that the choices we make here and now lead to a more abundant life, or to destruction of ourselves and those around us. We all know people who seem to make decisions which, to the despair of onlookers, seem to inevitably lead to pain, relationship breakdown, financial ruin, poor health; and others who seem able to act with the sort of grace and wisdom that tends towards the opposite outcomes.

But Jesus doesn’t say here that there will be some who follow a path to destruction, and many who will live good, upright, beneficial lives; he turns the balance around. And while there may be a certain amount of hyperbole about these words, I believe there is a genuine bite in them: that the life that Jesus is talking about, the life abundant that he said elsewhere that he came to bring, is more than just living what we would call a good life, more than being a good “Christian” citizen; that there is more to living life the way that Jesus challenged his disciples to live than adopting what we often seem to refer to as “Christian values”.

C.S. Lewis wrote, in the now slightly dated language of his day, that we already had a perfectly good word for a man who lived an upright, honourable, honest life; and that word was not “Christian”, it was “Gentleman”. The word “Christian” must mean more than just someone who lived up to the standards of their day; the road to the life that Jesus calls us to is more radical, more challenging, than that.

That, perhaps, is why often in the teaching of Jesus we hear the refrain “even the gentiles do that”, or “even tax collectors do that”. If you love those who love you, look after those who are like you, forgive those who have forgiven you, you do no more than we might expect of any decent human being. Of course there are those who do not een live up to that standard, but we are not challenged by Jesus words to compare ourselves with the worst, or even with the generally good, but to find – and live – the narrow road. The road of loving those who are painful, annoying, embarrasing; caring for those who need our care regardless of who they are or where they come from; giving beyond our comfort to look after those who are in the greatest need; taking the painful steps to forgive and seek reconciliation even with those that we might prefer to be estranged from; accepting, sometimes, unjust criticism or even outright persecution rather than insisting on our rights. The road of love for neighbour and enemy, self-sacrificial love that puts the needs of others above ourselves.

And in the light of that challenge, the teaching of the sermon on the mount ends with three paragraphs which ought to put to bed once and for all any form of Christian teaching which suggests that the core of the faith is believing the right things or saying the right words.

You will know them by their fruits.

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.

And, of course, the wise man who builds his house upon the rock.

How often have you heard that final parable told with the punchline of “build your life on the rock of Jesus”? The children’s Bible song “the wise man built his house upon the rock” makes it the final verse “so build your house on the Lord Jesus Christ, and the blessings will come down”.

And I guess that’s good advice, although to be honest I’m not sure that what the words “build your house on Jesus” really mean, especially in a kids’ song, and disturbingly, for those of a literal turn of mind. But in any case, it’s not what the parable says:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock … And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.

Here, at the very conclusion of the sermon on the mount, Jesus’ words are not about what you believe, what you say or pray, whether you attend Church, but whether, hearing the words of Jesus, the hard, radical, revolutionary teaching that makes up the sermon on the mount, you act on them.

The one who builds a house on the rock is the one who hears Jesus when he says “love your enemies and do good for those who curse you”, and asks himself – “who is my enemy? And what could I do as an act of love for them?”. Or hears “forgive others as you would be forgiven” and asks “who am I holding a deep grudge against, and how can I let go?”. Or hears “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength” and asks “what am I holding back; what is more important to me than God?”. Or hears “how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” and asks “what can I do with the wealth God has given me care of?”. Or hears “whatever you did for the least of one of these, you did for me” and asks “how can I, today, this week, this year, do more for those in my community, my country, my world, who are most in need?”

The one who builds on the sand hears all the same words of Jesus – for the parable does not compare those who hear with those who do not, but those who hear and act with those who hear and don’t act – but chooses not to act in the way Jesus asks, advises, commands. Who hears, but finds reasons that these words don’t apply to them. Hears, but decides that right now, at this stage of life, it isn’t practical. Hears, but chooses to hold on to what is theirs rather than opening their hands in gratitude and generousity. Hears, but prefers the moral high ground of having been wronged to the possibility of reconciliation created in forgiveness.

It is a narrow path; it is harder to dig foundations on rock than on sand; it is easier to grow weeds than fruit (very much easier, in my experience). It’s much easier to hear Jesus’ words, agree with them, affirm them, even preach them from the pulpit, than it is to act on them. But that is not the way to life. Not the way to live.

As G.K. Chesterton put it: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found hard and not tried.”


Uniting Artists

Olive McCredie is seeking artists who are interested in exhibiting their works with a sale percentage going to the Exodus Foundation. There is currently limited space at the upcoming Wahroonga Antiques Fair which will be held at St John’s Wahroonga over the weekend of July 11th-13th.

Anyone interested please phone Olive on 94876778 or email

Do to others….

Deuteronomy 11:18-21 | Matthew 7:1-12
And so we come, at last, to the simple phrase that lies at the center of the ethical content of the Sermon on the Mount, and, perhaps, of the teaching of Jesus.
Two weeks ago we reflected on the Lord’s Prayer, and how it, in many ways, was the greatest possible summary of what it meant to be Christian: to identify our relationship with the Holy God as one of parent to child; or rather, parent to family; that in praying the opening few words of the Lord’s Prayer you claim that status as a member of the family of God, not as a reward or acheivment, but by simple virtue of the fact that Jesus has invited you to so pray.

And I hinted that the Lord’s Prayer goes on to pray for the core of Jesus’ mission – your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth, and that the rest of the prayer builds on that sense of what the Kingdom of God is meant to be be like.

And here, in the final words of today’s gospel reading, Jesus offers a simple summary of what the Kingdom life looks like – at least on the individual level.
In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.

Now of course it’s frequently observed that ethical rules of this form predated Jesus. Confucious described “reciprocity” as the one word which might serve as a rule for practice for all of one’s life, and instructed “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself”; the Greek philosopher Isocrates wrote “Do not do to others what would anger you if done to you by others.”, the Hindu writer Tiruvalluvar “Let not a man consent to do those things to another which, he knows, will cause sorrow.”

But you’ve probably noticed by now that all these other ancient formulations have something in common, and differ from Jesus’ words in one crucial respect. The genius of Jesus’ simple phrase is that he, apparently for the first time, took a reciprocal prohibition – don’t do it if you wouldn’t want it done to you – and turned it into a positive, active, rule for life: do as you would be done by.

It’s a simple enough change, and, like so many truly great breakthroughs, seems obvious enough in hindsight, but it’s almost impossible to overstate what a difference it makes. The negative form existed to prevent harm, to provide a framework for legislation, a rationale for deciding what actions could be permitted, and which must be prohibited.

As such it is a huge advance on the dog eats dog, might makes right philosophies that preceeded it – and continue so often to this day – for each of the ancient philosophers I quoted took the huge step of applying their rule to all, and not just to your family, tribe, or nation; it established the universal principle that all people, whoever they are, are deserving of protection.

But turned around into positive form, the golden rule becomes not just the basis of a legal framework, not just a code to protect the weak from abuse by the powerful, but a positive, active demand for action. No longer is it simply a call to refrain from doing harm: now it is a call to arms, a challenge to action, a rule for living a life which makes a difference.

And in doing so, these simple words challenge the core of the popular understanding of sin. The Christian idea of sin is so often understood, by those within the faith as well as those outside it, in terms of the violation of a code, the breaking of rules, doing something that you should not have done.

But in the communion service that I remember from my childhood, the prayer of confession contained this phrase (and you might hear me use it sometimes when I pray from memory):

Almighty God, our heavenly Father,
we have sinned against you, and against our fellow men,
in thought, and word and deed,
through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault
in the evil we have done, and in the good that we have not done

The evil we have done, and the good that we have not done.

It is simply not enough, according to Jesus, to seek to avoid doing wrong, to do no harm, to cause no injury. The holy life, the life of the kingdom, is not about what we must not do – it is about what we are to do.

And it’s not like this is the only place that Jesus makes this point: in the parable of the sheep and the goats, I imagine you recall, Jesus’ condemnation of those he is rejecting is expressed entirely in terms of the things they didn’t do: I was hungry and you gave me nothing to drink, I was sick and you did not visit me, I was naked and you gave me nothing to wear. Not a word of condemnation for their actions; a torrent of it for their inaction in the face of need.

Which brings me, reluctantly but unavoidably, to last week’s budget. There’s a great deal of argument, of course, in the community, and in the media, about many aspects of the budget. And I always maintain that people of good faith will disagree about the right ways to manage an economy, to govern a country, and that it is therefore to be welcomed that there are people of faith on all sides of the polical divide. But one aspect that seems to have attracted less attention is the single largest cut made in the budget – the removal of over $7.5 billion dollars from Australia’s overseas aid, a cut that was explicity ruled out by the then opposition before the election.

Some say – perhaps some here would say – that Christians, and Christian preachers in particular, should stay out of politics, and I often surprise even myself by agreeing. But today I hear Jesus words – do to others as you would have them do to you – and they compel me to ask:

If I was a child whose school will no longer be supported, and whose only option for education will now be religious fundamentalists of one stripe or another; or if I was a mother-to-be who will no longer receive the care of a midwife; or if I was a struggling entreprenuer whose hope of access to capital has been taken from me; or if I was a grandmother whose cataracts will now go untreated; if I was one of the millions upon millions who live year after year below that poverty line than Sureka and I are about to pretend to live at for five days; what would I have those who have a voice, a pulpit, a wallet, to do?

If I was there, would I want Christian preachers to remain silent because they might sound political?

Some of you here will, broadly speaking, tend to support the approach of the conservative side of politics, some will generally favour the actions of the current government. Others find their sympathies more commonly with the political left, or elsewhere. I don’t think it’s a big secret where my instincts lie. But I know that many – Christians and others – from across the political spectrum are deeply troubled by the idea the Australia – one of the wealthiest nations in the world – is proposing to significantly reduce the assistance it gives to some of the poorest people in the world. Australia’s overseas aid is remarkably effective, well targetted, and efficient; it saves lives, educates children, and develops economies to a place where they no longer need our help.

If you do share this disquiet, then hear these words: “do for others as you would have them do for you”. Use your voice. Tell others what you think. Tell Paul Fletcher, who I believe to be a man of integrity, sympathetic to those most in need. Tell the Prime Minister – for we live in a democracy, you have the right to write. But most of all, tell your friends, your family. Do not allow this to happen in silence.

You may not agree – and please believe that I respect and value your disagreement. Whether you agree or not, I hope we can all hear the words Jesus challenges us with: In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.


Below the Line

In the week of May 19th – May 23rd, six members of the Growing Place congregation are going to be “Living Below the Line”. Living Below the Line is a challenge to spend less than $2 per person per day on food for five days, in order to get just a small sense of the reality of life for those many millions in the world who live on the edge of extreme poverty.

As part of Living Below the Line, Sureka and Chris will be raising funds for UnitingWorld’s overseas development projects, to alleviate that same extreme poverty in our region. If you’d like to make a contribution, you can do so online or in person!

No Worries?

Isaiah 49:8-16a | Matthew 6:22-34
Sometime, when we’re reading a passage from the Bible and exploring what the text means; we get caught up in the meaty, memorable bits of the text – “consider the lilies of the field”, or, in the Latin, Sicut Lilium, the words emblazoned on the crest of my High School, and miss words which are more bland, less exciting, but which serve to give shape and context and structure and, sometimes, meaning, to those memorable bits.

Reading the gospel today, for instance, we read three times the clear command “do not worry”. Now I doubt that there is a piece of advice which is more often given, more universally accepted as wise, and more completely useless, than those words: “do not worry”.

I mean, can you imagine a circumstance in which you were worried about something, it was nagging on your mind, keeping you awake at night, and then someone comes up to you and says “don’t worry about it”, and you say “gosh! That thought had never occurred to me! I’ll stop worrying right now! Thank you for giving me such good advice”. As if worry was something that we could simply choose to do or to stop doing.

I mean, we all know about useless worry, about that pointless going over and over things that are past and can’t be changed, or things in the present that are beyond our control, or things in the future which might not even ever happen. Of course, there are other things that are within our control, that do need to be thought about and planned for, but we al know what it is to worry, knowing that there is no point in doing so. And that you cannot just stop.

Which is perhaps why Jesus doesn’t just repeat the advice, doesn’t just make a bland “don’t worry, be happy”, but spends a significant time talking about it.

And if you look at the three places in the passage where the words “do not worry” occur, each of them is preceded by the same word or idea: “therefore (I say to you) do not worry”, “therefore do not worry”, “so do not worry”.

Each time the “do not worry” arises, it refers back to the words that have gone before, placing it in the context of a larger argument that Jesus is building up.

The passage opens with “the eye is the lamp of the body” and “no one can serve two masters”. What you look at, what you pay attention to, what you choose to allow to enter your mind, matters – it shapes you, casts light or darkness into you. I’ve preached before, a whole sermon, I think, on this: on the value of your attention, the way it’s the one thing everyone wants from you – the child pulling at your leg, the advertiser catching your eye, the politician with their press release – and how the decision of what you will pay attention to does more to determine what you know and think and feel than anything.

And so it moves quite naturally onto the next phrase: “no one can serve two masters”. Your attention, your focus, your service, cannot ever really be divided. You will choose to act based on the thing that you pay most attention to, the voice or goal or value that you spend your time looking at and thinking about. And so we have Jesus’ first “therefore do not worry” – the reason that this command is so important. The motivation for not worrying that Jesus offers isn’t so that you will feel less stressed, or for the good of your health, but because the things that you choose to worry about – and in the text, he is clearly talking most especially about possessions, wealth, material goods – will become your master. If you spend your life worrying about the material things of life, you have already become their servant.

But life is more than food, the body more than clothing. If we will allow it to be so.

So the first “therefore do not worry” is about why what we worry about matters. But it’s no good just leaving it there. No use, as we all know, just saying “don’t worry about those material things, there are other things much more important”. For though most of us are fortunate enough not to be in such a situation, I’m sure we can all at least imagine, if not remember, how hard it is to take your mid of the quest to meet physical needs when those needs are real and pressing, when there is no money to pay the rent, or the source of the next meal is far from clear.

So the passage moves on to the very well known birds of the air and lilies of the field analogy. And I have to admit that I find this one of the least convincing arguments anywhere in Jesus’ teaching. The birds do not sow or reap, or gather into barns, that’s true. And their heavenly Father feeds them. Well, yes, sometimes. But have a longer than usual drought, or a bad period of frost, and many birds of the air might well be wishing that they had gathered food into a barn, or copied the squirrels in hiding nuts in a hole in a tree (I don’t know if squirrels actually do that, but they do in all the stories). Is Jesus really suggesting that working for what we need – sowing and reaping – or planning for the lean times – gathering into barns – is somehow fruitless worry, or failure to trust?

I suspect Jesus words here have more than a hint of hyperbole about them – that his advice is not to cease doing those things that we do in order to survive, but to recognise that even as we do them, we are still remaining reliant on the God who gives the growth to the seeds we plant; that there are things we need to think about and do to survive, but there are many more things that we worry about which don’t contribute.

Perhaps this is hinted at in Jesus’ question “can any of you, by worrying, add an hour to your life?”. For of course the answer to that question is certainly “yes”, if by worrying you include worrying about whether there is a car coming before you cross the road, or worrying about whether you are eating a balanced diet or drinking too much, or worrying about whether or not the structure you’ve built is strong enough to take your weight, or worrying about the noise coming from your car suspension… Those worries may indeed add many hours to your life, or the lives of others – because they are worries that you can act upon. Perhaps that might even tells us that Jesus isn’t talking about practical, useful, thoughtful worry.

And that thought made me wonder, even as I wrote this sermon, more about this word “worry”. And it turns out that the greek word translated here, merimnao, carries a much more negative connotation than our word ‘worry’. Much more the sense of ‘anxiety’, or even ‘distraction’; ‘to be pulled apart’. “Therefore I say to you, do not be distracted by thinking about what you will eat or drink, or what you will wear”. Because God knows what you need already.

A reading which rather neatly segues into Jesus’ punchline: “Instead, strive first for the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness”.

The whole passage suddenly sounds a rather different tone – and my apologies if this is old news to you, but I’ve never seen it this way before. “Be careful where you focus your attention, for you cannot serve both God and the material things of the world. So don’t be distracted by the things you need and the things that you think you need; strive instead for the things of God’s kingdom, for God knows what you need even before you ask for it”

And the completely useless and futile instruction “do not worry”? It changes tone too, for it takes on a positive shape. If you want to stop worrying about stuff you can’t do anything about, the most powerful psychological trick available is to throw your focus, your energy, your concentration, your passion, yourself, into something else.

We no longer read “don’t worry about practical physical needs”, instead we read “don’t be distracted by them. Keep your eyes on the goal, your mind on your calling.”

Strive for the kingdom of God. Work and live to make it more real, more visible, more here. Throw your life, your energy, your effort into doing the work of God’s kingdom that you have been called to – whether that be feeding the hungry, campaigning for justice, educating a new generation, bringing health to the sick, protecting creation, caring for those who are in need, befriending the lonely, creating beauty, giving with generosity, telling the good news, praying for all these things and more – and trust God for the rest.

Now I’m not saying that this is easy advice to follow. It’s not always easy to know our calling in the Kingdom, not always easy to hold on to it.

But at least these words – to me, anyway – make sense. As a goal to strive for, a hope to cling onto. To find the works of the Kingdom that you can do, that you are called to, gifted at, passionate for, and make them your focus.

Don’t be distracted. Strive for the Kingdom.


Panel Forum on Asylum Seekers

Thornleigh Community Baptist Church are hosting a panel forum aimed at developing a theological response to the complex issues surrounding Asylum seekers. The forum panel includes Greg Lake (former director of Regional and Offshore processing), Allan Asher (former Commonwealth Ombudsman, barrister and solicitor to the High Court), Jo Hill (Program Manager at House of Welcome) and Danelle McLeay (National Director, International Teams, and ordained Baptist Minister).

The forum is at 7.30pm Thursday 19 June, 2014. Download brochure for more information.

Cartophiles finish WildEndurance 2014

The Cartophiles team has completed WildEndurance 2014, the Wilderness Society’s 100km Team Challenge in the Blue Mountains on 3rd – 4th May.  Despite the rain, overnight temperatures as low as 3° and winds gusting over 60kph the team arrived intact.

Coming in to the finish

The team just minutes before crossing the finish line. L-R Kit, Owen, Sue, Adam

The team had three objectives: for everyone to finish, to complete the 100km under 30 hours and to raise $2,000 for The Wilderness Society. It achieved all three.

The Cartophiles finished as a complete team in 29 hrs and 19 mins, which placed it 13th overall and 7th in the mixed teams. About 56 teams started in the 100km category.

Adam was really suffering during the last half but soldiered on wonderfully. Owen carried a dose of the flu into the event and may have coughed up most of a lung along the track. Sue was amazingly bullet-proof and helped Kit through as she does in life.

Special thanks to Ray Daly and Nick Samios who did a superb job as support crew, including chivvying the out of the checkpoints and back into the race. The Cartophiles couldn’t have done it without them.

Thanks to all the wonderful people who supported the team through donations and (often strange) messages of encouragement.

Our Father

Psalm 131 | Matthew 6:1-21

Rowan Williams, until recently the Archbishop of Canterbury, said “If somebody said, give me a summary of Christian faith that I can write on the back of an envelope, the best thing to do would be to write out the Lord’s Prayer.”

Martin Luther, writing in an age in which literacy was very much the exception, wrote to ministers that they could expect their congregations to know by heart only three things: the ten commandments – which he described as “the standard we fail to keep” – the creed “God’s response to our sin” – and the Lord’s Prayer “our response to God’s grace”.

It is perhaps the only piece of Christian liturgy used by Christians throughout the world, of almost all denominations or none. And while the form of words we use differs in detail from that found in Matthew’s gospel (or in Luke’s slightly shorter version), we all remain more or less true to Jesus’ words.

If you take the Lord’s Prayer bit by bit, take it apart, there’s not a lot in it that was really new, that you wouldn’t find somewhere in the Old Testament or in Jewish prayers known at the time of Jesus.

But one thing that is absolutely unique about it is that it is the way that it begins simply with the address “Our Father. Nothing more elaborate, nothing more grand. No “O Lord my God”, as so many of the psalms begin; no “Holy and mighty one” or “God of Abraham and Isaac” – but just an address as to the father of the family.

It’s the opening words, the salutation, and it puts the whole prayer into context. This is a prayer for God’s family, a prayer for God’s children.

Jesus, of course, consistently referred to God as his father – “I only do what I see my Father doing” – “Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father” – “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” – “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”. And here in the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer, we are invited to pray in that same way.
As soon as you’ve said those first words “Our Father” you’ve said: I’ve been given a share in Jesus’ relationship with God. I don’t have to work out my relationship with God from scratch. I don’t have to climb a long ladder up to heaven, I’ve been invited into this family relationship. That’s the gift that every prayer begins with. The very words we start with tell us a huge amount about who we are as Christians.

Not just who you are as a Christian, either: who we are as Christians. For it is “our Father”, not “my Father”; the invitation of our faith is not just into the father-child relationship with God, but into the messy network of brothers and sisters that makes up family, this crazy mixture of people who may share next to nothing in common beyond the fact that have been drawn by the same call, the same invitation, the same love, to be part of the community of those who, together, call God Father.

But we cannot move on from these opening words without acknowledging that there are those among God’s people, perhaps those amongst us here today, for whom the language of “Father” is a problem, a barrier, a grief; for whom the word is laden with too many broken human meanings to be able to bear the weight this prayer places upon it.

Father is a powerful word, but in our love for others and for one another, let us never forget that it is not always powerful in a helpful way, and it is not the only word available to us to describe a loving relationship that draws us into community with one another. Human language can be no more than an imperfect analogy; sometimes, for some of us, “our mother”, “our leader”, “our guru”, “our friend” will be more true to the meaning of Christ’s words than “Father”.

Jesus adds one more phrase to his salutation: “in heaven”. “Our father in heaven”. It’s not like this is needed to avoid ambiguity – I don’t think that Jesus is teaching us to properly address our prayer as we would properly address an envelope, as if God might otherwise be unsure whether this prayer was address to God or to so some human father.

For in the culture of Jesus’ first followers, far more than it is so for us today, who your Father was determined more than just your name or family, more than who you were, it determined your citizenship, where you belonged. Your father’s home town was your home town. So when we continue in the words of the Lord’s Prayer “Our father in heaven”, we’re saying Heaven, God’s place, God’s home is also our home. “Our citizenship”, says St Paul in one of his letters, “is in heaven”; that is, heaven is where we belong.

And if we skip ahead just a little, “your kingdom come”, the line of the prayer that echoes the opening words of Jesus’ public ministry “the kingdom of God is at hand”: that citizenship is not for a future life – or rather, not just for that – but is a reality that we pray and work for, and that can be ours, here and now. Because of Jesus heaven is on earth, in that restored web of relationships that is named the kingdom of God, the family of God, and into that we are invited to enter.

But before we pray those words we add first “Hallowed be your name” – now that’s one of those phrases that’s most strange to us. It really only makes sense if we set it against the background of the Old Testament understanding of the name of God, the idea that the name of God is not just a label, but is something in itself immensely beautiful and powerful and significant. The name of God is God’s word, God’s presence.
And to ask that God’s name be hallowed, that God’s name be looked upon as holy, is to ask that in this world people will understand the presence of God among them with awe and reverence, and will not use or take that presence lightly.

Which, I suspect, has far less to do with using God’s name as a casual curse, than it has to do with using God’s name as a weapon, or as a tool for our own ends, to hurt or oppress or manipulate others. When God’s name is used to justify, even to facilitate acts of evil: the oppression of minorities, the continuation of unjust economic systems, the use of violence as a tool of power, the brutal treatment of others as an act of political calculation.

But this is not to ask that we take the name, the presence, of God out of our discussion, out of public or private discourse. For our prayer is not “may God’s name be silenced” – it is “may God’s name be hallowed”. It is a prayer that we, and others, may speak the name, know the presence, and allude to the idea of God in our world with the veneration and humility and care that that name demands.

Not to use God, the name of God, as a magic talisman, nor as a rubber stamp for our ideologies, but always to approach that name with a sense of our own limitations, a keen awareness that we might be wrong, that we do not own this name.

It would be possible to continue through the Lord’s Prayer – every line holds a sermon hidden inside it – but if I haven’t yet worn out your patience, I’m certainly close to the end of mine. So let me close by just bringing together the two deep truths of Christian (and Jewish) theology that lie in this opening line – for together they create a tension, a revelation, that is greater still.

That this God – this holy one, this one to be venerated and approached only with reverent awe and holy hesitancy – is the same one that we are invited to name as Father.

It is the same tension that is to be found elsewhere in our faith, and especially in the mysteries of our faith: that the God omnipresent is also the one incarnate; that the God omnipotent is also the one dying helpless on the cross; that the God all holy is also the one found embracing the sinner.

“Our father in heaven, hallowed by your name”