I preached my first-ever sermon at work on Tuesday. I chose to celebrate the feast day of Thomas Cranmer early. (His true feast day is today, March 21.) Cranmer left Anglicans and Episcopalians the gift of our Book of Common Prayer in somewhat of the same way Jesus left us set prayers by which to orient ourselves to God.
Jesus said, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
“Pray then in this way” — Our Lord’s Prayer
Set prayers. Pre-written with just the right choice of words.
Today we are celebrating the feast day of Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury and martyr. Also known as the father of Anglicanism and master of the via media, the middle way our tradition is grounded in. He was a scholar, a wordsmith, and key player in the English Reformation.
Cranmer edited and crafted many of the set prayers used in the 16th century. They are poetry that has nourished our faith for hundreds of years. One of his goals was to ensure that there wasn’t any hint self-righteousness in our prayers, that we are putting our faith in God alone and not in our egos or our good works.
But if Cranmer was a perfectionist with words, he did not believe that one must be a perfectionist with works. As a young divinity student as Jesus College, Cambridge where he fell and love and married. His scholarship was revoked but later reinstated after his wife died in childbirth. He became a priest and years later, after having become a servant of King Henry VIII, he married again, reportedly having to hide his wife until the Church of England separated from the church in Rome. Cranmer, having been introduced to King Henry VIII became a trusted friend of the king’s and was embroiled in what is known as the “King’s affair.” Cranmer’s proposal, when Henry wanted to divorce his queen, Katherine of Aragon, to marry Anne Boleyn, was to take the issue to the scholars at university, which he did.
Thomas Cranmer’s scholarship and craft resulted in our incredible prayer book, our guide for prayer and liturgy. He is the primary creator of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. He later revised it in 1552. Cranmer was very particular with words. Although many traditions in the 16th century and for centuries before used set prayers (just think of the Psalms of David and, of course, the Lord’s prayer), Cranmer seems to have demanded no less than perfection in the wording of prayers. Diarmaid McCulloch, in his ground breaking 1996 biography of Cranmer, suggests that had Cranmer not been martyred, he was on the way to revising the prayer book for a third time…
Cranmer’s revising puts me in mind of the way that we edit our words to take out judgement and self-righteousness as our common life evolves.- the way we say things like “died by suicide” and note that someone is a “survivor of addiction” are ways that we show our respect to God first, honoring and respecting – not judging – our brothers and sisters, God’s children.
In our reading today, Jesus is calling the people not to babble on endlessly in prayer, filling the air with possibly empty, not carefully crafted words, but rather, I think he is saying that setting intention is critical for us to put God first in our lives and make our prayer time a sacred space where God can align our wills with his, if we are willing. The key here is alignment. When we are not balanced or are too much in our heads or too much in our bodies and maybe not enough in our souls, we, as channels through which God’s grace can pour, are not open, not clear, and the energy can get stuck. When we get centered, as in our weekly centering prayer practice here, we open ourselves and invite God in.
At this point in the gospel story, Jesus has just come from his time of temptation in the desert where he tells the devil “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” In other words, having our earthly needs met is super important, as is helping others to meet their earthly needs, such as having food and shelter. But we live by God’s reasoning and God’s grace – freely given, first and foremost.
Though for Jesus in the desert, temptation is present and strong, Jesus is orienting his compass to God. He goes on to tell the devil that it is written that we are not to put our Lord God to the test. When we rattle off a list of specific wishes as prayers, are we not testing God? Even for those who are asking God for daily bread, literally for something to eat to get through another day, is belief and trust in God’s word the motivation or does survival mode kick in and drive the agenda?
When I was about to give birth to my first child by C-section, I had been in labor for 30 hours and in 36 hours had slept only 30 minutes, eaten nothing and not been allowed to drink water. I was also anemic from an undiagnosed case of celiac disease, which also caused extreme hunger all day. My profound and lasting memory as I was being rolled down the hall to the operating room was “I am so hungry I don’t think I can do this.” I was numb. But I wasn’t worried about the baby.
I like to think that I intuited that my son was ok. But I probably would have sold my soul to the devil for a cheeseburger at that moment and really, I think I had surrendered. Part of me really didn’t think I could go on any more. I wasn’t praying, I don’t remember asking for God’s help and I wasn’t focusing on God’s grace as I often do when I’ve eaten… I was defeated. If I wasn’t focused on God I was stuck in my head. I can remember thinking in the moment that I was going to have to do some major processing after it was all over. I couldn’t understand the state I’d was in.
It was a fellow pilgrim in my Education for Ministry group, a pediatric nurse, who said to me when I later described my trauma, “You were in survival mode. You couldn’t focus on God like you might have wanted to. You were just trying to keep going.” That was a lightening bolt moment for me. Again, words are important and the words “survival mode” helped me understand.
I am more than fortunate to have never been in such a situation of dire physical straits as that until then, but it was shocking. To think that Jesus was fasting and living in those dire straits for weeks as he faced down all that is human, and being determined to survive on the word of God. It’s no wonder he came out swingin’!
This is a powerful time in Jesus’ ministry. After he vanquishes the temptation of the devil, he is called to a particular place where the spirit seems to have descended, where his message is ready to be heard, a sort of vortex, it seems, being Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, as was prophesied by Isaiah.
Now, if I had to guess, I’d wager that Jesus did not go to Capernaum because he asked God to send him there because it’s a seaside resort or where he’d make a lot of friends but because he listened and heard God call him to a place he could serve. After coming out of the intense and purifying experience in the desert, Jesus’ body, mind, heart and soul were ready to be a channel for God’s grace in a place that was ready to receive it and to learn how to share it. God knew what was in Jesus’ heart, the desire to fulfill God’s will, and he was sent.
His teaching, his healing and his ministry are accepted in this time and place. It is in this powerful time that Jesus lays down a new social order in the form of the beatitudes, lays down the Lord’s prayer…He is going full force in contrast to times when he heals and says, “Go and tell no one….” What is different here? Jesus seems to have found not only individuals with their hearts prepared, but a community at least in part ready to live differently – a community of love…
Because Cranmer had his heart centered on God, God was able to work through him in dangerous and tricky times. By a chance meeting Cranmer gained King Henry VIII’s attention and rose in his service, eventually being named Archbishop of Canterbury. He didn’t really want power or to be entangled in politics, but to serve God through his gifts of scholarship and writing, theology and liturgy. At the same time, he saw the impractical nature of some of the rules of the Church and sought to reform them. Cranmer was a faithful servant of his King, but set his intention and aligned himself with God first that he might better serve God in the world through his position and place. Cranmer used his position most profoundly to reform the Church after Henry’s death under Edward VI, Henry’s Protestant son. He had plans for continued reformation advocating for Lady Jane Grey to serve as Edward’s successor but the succession failed and Henry’s daughter by Katherine of Aragon, Mary, a staunch Catholic, gained the throne and charged Cranmer with treason and sentenced him to die. As a result of Cranmer’s earthly decisions (helping the king marry Anne Boleyn) our tradition was blessed by the rule of Queen Elizabeth I who did end up perpetuating our Protestant faith, though Cranmer didn’t live to see it.
In the end, it seems Thomas Cranmer overcame survival mode himself. After being charged by Mary, was held captive in a weakened condition and reportedly signed several recantations of his articles of faith. When he was taken to be burned at the stake, he boldly stated that he stood by everything he had ever learned and taught, that the recantations were false, made under duress, in survival mode. As a testament, he stuck his right hand, the one he had signed with, into the flames first, destroying it for the lies it had told under pressure. He then went bravely to his death in the fire, unraveling Mary’s plans to overcome the Protestant faith in England. Cranmer didn’t change the world do it in as counter-cultural a way as Jesus did. It was more of an inside job. But called upon to serve he infiltrated politics with God as his guide. He was in the middle of things when the Church of England from Rome He then reformed it based on justification by grace, not works. He brought the Bible in English into the churches in England so that scripture could be heard, read and understood in the tongue of the people. He left us a plan of enduring prayer – The Book of Common Prayer.
In the end, Jesus was faithful and brave, was crucified and left his people an enduring plan for prayer and alignment with the highest good, God’s grace. One key way he did that was with the gift of the Lord’s prayer.
Are we like those in Capernaum? Are we a people ready to hear and receive Jesus’ teaching that we might truly live life through a different lens, where love is the way? Are we ready to overcome earthly temptation, as Jesus did in the desert, by focusing our intention and attention on the higher vibration of the divine kingdom? If our answer is yes, we have to practice and we can do that by praying in the way our Lord taught us to pray.
In some Esoteric Christian traditions, the Lord’s prayer is described as one carefully calculated to calibrate our bodies to be fit to keep our eyes on the prize of God’s kingdom. John Philip Newell, a Celtic theologian and prolific author in his book Echo of the Soul: The Sacredness of the Human Body, teaches about seven levels of physical connection with the divine. These can be equated with the seven colors of the rainbow, the manifest vibration of God’s creative energy. Eastern traditions would describe these as the seven dominant chakras.
I invite you to join me in calibrating yourself to highest good before earthly matters, integrating and balancing your temple, your body to be a channel for God’s grace. Let us pray in this way, as Jesus taught us:– close your eyes and breath and just listen, centering yourself with every line. Imagine the transformation brought on by every word and its meaning. Mediate on the word:
The first line of the prayer set the higher intention. The last line balance the earthly within the context of the heavenly. Let us pray. Slowly…
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
The doxology, added later, takes us back up to the heavenly, having integrated the earthly. I invite you to take this practice into your own prayer life, to help calibrate you to hear God’s will. Amen.