October 7, 2012

 

ON OUR FATHER IN HEAVEN

                                                      Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                           at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 7 October 2012

  

Have you ever been asked about God?  And if you have, how have you answered your enquirer?  Some people ask the question in an attempt to make us look silly.  They have already made up their minds – or so they like to think – and nothing we tell them will make them change their minds – or so they like to think!  Others have their own firmly held views about God, and often those opinions are not pleasant.  I often wonder from where they get such ideas, because their understanding of God is very different from how I have experienced him.  Perhaps their ideas about God are based on how their earthly fathers have treated them, and while a human father’s love for his children ought to reflect the love of God for us, his children, all too often if falls far, far, too far short of the love of God.  And then there are those who conceive of God as some distant being far beyond the realm of human affairs so that they have to create intermediaries – angels, saints, the Blessed Mother, and so on – who can somehow intercede for us. 

I would describe myself as a cradle Anglican, and a born-again believer who is still an Anglican.  As such, I am steeped in the teachings of the Scriptures, especially the writings of the New Testament, and in the traditions of the Church as reflected in the Book of Common Prayer.  I use the Book of Common Prayer for my daily devotions and the Scriptures for my daily contemplation of God.  And let me tell you, virtually every day I discern, or perhaps God shows me, something new about himself.

Advocates of other traditions make use of the Scriptures, and I pray that they read them and study them in such a way that allows God to speak to them rather than believing that they can understand the fullness of the Scriptures without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Where those who call ourselves Anglicans – or, in Scotland and the United States, Episcopalians – have an advantage is in the Book of Common Prayer, containing as it does centuries of devotion on the part of millions of our forerunners to the One whom we call Our Father in Heaven.

This comes through in the structure of the different rites we observe from our baptism to the requiem that those we leave behind invoke over us.  This devotion is to be seen in our celebrations of the Eucharist as urged upon us by our Blessed Lord and Saviour.  And for those of us, whether ordained or lay, who use the Daily Office in the Book of Common Prayer, we see the character of Anglican devotion in the collects that we use each day and in the cycle of collects that we use throughout the ecclesiastical year.  Let me explain what this means, by referring to the collect that we shall be using this week.

Actually this collect does double duty as it one of those that the celebrant may use at the conclusion of the Prayers of the People in Rite II of the Eucharist.  Perhaps that indicates how significant a prayer this week’s collect is for us.

It begins by describing God in terms that are very familiar to most of us.  We address him as “Almighty and everlasting”, by which we mean that all the power, whether we humans are able to conceive it or not, originates in God, and that God is not confined by our ideas of space and time.  Before time, God was; after time, God will still be.  And if we can go to the very edge of space, which modern-day scientists imply is inconceivable, even there and then God is and will be.  There is nothing, no entity, actual or dreamed of, that is more powerful than God who is almighty and everlasting.  Indeed our little three-letter English word God translates a word in Hebrew that means Power, absolute Power, with a capital P, and for good measure you might say capital O, W, E, and R as well!

Yet our experience is that this Power regards each and everyone who was, is and will be in such a way that he is always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve.  Presumably, because God is All-Power, he can do anything to us, with us and for us, even treating us in ways that we might not like.  Yet as Anglicans and Episcopalians our understanding and our experience of this Almighty One is that he does not treat us in ways that are detrimental to us, although it might not always seem so at times.  Rather we are able to ask him to pour upon us the abundance of his mercy.  Now we are not talking about the gentle rains of Heaven here, but of a constant heavy downpour that batters us with his mercy cleansing us of all that has contaminated us and continues to contaminate us, or, as the collect puts it, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid.

All of us have done things that we would rather not own up to.  They might be quite trivial, but even so our knowledge of life and of ourselves tells us that we did wrong and even if we try to bury whatever it is deep within the innermost recesses of our being, our conscience – literally, from the Latin, that which comes with knowledge – condemns us and we count ourselves as unworthy of respect, of forgiveness, even of love.  Yet our collect suggests that the great flood of the Almighty and Everlasting Mercy and Love of God is such that what we regard as making us unworthy is washed away, entirely and for ever, and that we are thereby regarded by God with respect, with forgiveness and with love. 

And there is even more.  God continues to be the Provider of all Good Things.  Here our mortal English can hardly cope with what it is that God is doing.  It is not just good things, all good things, but all that might be described as good, material and immaterial, measureable and immeasureable, comprehensible and incomprehensible.  In our own condition, often brought about by what we have said, done or thought, we might count ourselves as unworthy.  We might feel like a child who has let his or her parent down, a spouse who has betrayed his or her partner, a parent who has failed his or her child.  There are few of us who do not know these feelings of unworthiness in our human relations, and likewise in our relations with God.  That being the case we feel ourselves to be unworthy – we might even condemn ourselves as being unworthy – to ask for what we really need, material and immaterial, earthly and heavenly, physical and spiritual.

And yet, as with our weakened human relationships, there is a way for a full restoration of the relationship God would have us have with him.  It is not a way that we determine for ourselves, because we have already succeeded in only one thing, to get ourselves lost.  So we need another way, and Almighty God in his infinite mercy has shown us the way.  It involves allowing him to turn us around, as a parent reaches out to catch a child and turn it around to lead it away from danger.  There is a big theological word for this, one you have heard so many times before – repentance.  It simply means turning around.  We might be able to repent under our own steam, but the experience of many of us is that we need to be turned around by God.  Just like a loving mother calls her child away from danger, so God does with us his children, and he has demonstrated this by the life and ministry of Jesus.  And we acknowledge this by affirming that it is only because we are the beneficiaries of what Jesus did for us, both in the sense of instead of us and in the sense of on our behalf, that we may dare to ask at all for that goodness and mercy that God is more than ready to pour out upon every last child he has conceived in his mind and has created or will create.

Such is God whom I worship and adore, and such is God to whom I have sought to bear witness these many decades.

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