"If you will only obey God's commandments, then all these blessings shall come upon you...", so said the Old Testament reading in its opening verses. It went on to list the promised blessings - "Blessed shall be your fruit... your livestock... your basket... your kneading bowl... blessed are you in all you undertake". It ended with the promise "If you obey the commands of the Lord your God, (he) will make you the head and not the tail, you shall be at the top and not at the bottom". It sounds suspiciously like a league table of nations - reach these targets, and all will be given to you. Much of the Old Testament reflects this way of thinking about the Jew's covenant with God. If you do this for me, then I will do this for you. And if we had read on to the next verses we would have got the necessary converse. "If you will not obey the Lord, then cursed shall you be in the city and the field... the Lord will send upon you disaster, panic and frustration... your sons and daughters will go into captivity." According to this understanding of God's covenant you are very much either "in" or "out" - people are divided into the included or the excluded.
But actually, the chosen people knew it wasn't that simple. Often it was the outsider, the wicked or the foreigner, the one who ignored God's law - this was the person who seemed to succeed while the obedient suffered trials and tribulations. Over and over again the psalmists and the prophets lament about this obvious reality. Perhaps the Jews were able to live with that awkward reality because they realised that within their history was another tradition of covenant, more merciful than that set out by Moses. For Abraham and David, God's promise of blessing was not conditioned by human behaviour, but rested upon divine grace alone. They spoke of that "everlasting covenant", in which God gives his gracious promise that he will always be loyal and constant, however humans behave in their weakness.
God pours his grace on the favoured race, but he is ready to do so even when they have strayed from his paths - and he doesn't confine his largesse to the chosen, he also works in and through the stranger and the transgressor. In this understanding of covenant the lines between who is "in" and who is "out" are distinctly blurred.
I find this a distinctly comforting thought when I think about the old practice of "Beating the Bounds", which some of us will do this afternoon. As you may have read in the magazine, the ceremony derives from the practice of setting aside a few days before Ascension to pray for God's blessing on the parish in which we live - the walking around the boundaries is a reminder of the very particular needs of the area one is praying for. This is an excellent idea - to pray for all the people and happenings within an immediate neighbourhood, to pray that seeds of life and seeds of ideas and seeds of hope will flourish - for the good of the inhabitants. Its very particularity is good. It is always tempting to pray in vague generalities - "dear God please bless everyone in the world" - in a way which is almost meaningless. Rogation time has provided an opportunity for centuries to pray for the places and people which are most deeply part of our lives. This is good.
But there is a danger that such activity can narrow our vision, can be essentially selfish, concerned only for those "within" the favoured borders and not those "without". I'd like to suggest that it needn't be like this at all, for there is something very positive about walking along boundaries. It's self evident really, but its only from the boundary that we can see the other side. It's when we stay right in the middle of our little world that we are tempted to be selfish; tempted to say "We are the blessed ones, you are the cursed". This afternoon as we walk around the extremely oddly shaped boundary of St Peter's Parish, we shall certainly be learning more about the area of Nottingham which is the Parish of St.Peter and St.James - about The Park and this part of the commercial city centre. That's one of the purposes of the exercise - to try to identify better with the locality, its people and their needs. But our parish boundary also runs alongside the boundaries of other parishes, of St.Mary's and St Nic's, of All Saints Radford and Lenton and St.George's in the Meadows, parishes which range enormously in their character - representing at one end the civic grandeur of the City of Nottingham, and at the other the real poverty which is the mark of most inner city residential areas.
I guess we don't think of them too often, but as we walk alongside their houses and public buildings and waste places it might prompt us to think about them, and pray not just for ourselves but for them too. And surely this is a general principle which applies not just to parishes but to people and to peoples. It does us good to look over walls. Boundaries can be seen as narrowing and limiting, but if we acknowledge them and walk them and explore them, then they can free us from ourselves, open our eyes to the beyond, and make us more interested and more genuinely concerned for others.
That is also true about ourselves as individual people. "Keeping ourselves to ourselves" is never a recipe for happiness or fulfillment. Walking alongside others is the way to know more and care more and so to pray for them more effectively.
It is true about us as peoples - as communities and as nations. Modern technology, from television to the Internet, has extended our boundaries. In a way which has not been possible to previous generations, we look over the wall and see how other peoples' lives are lived (so often in horror or misery). That increases our responsibility for caring action, and also helps us to pray more realistically and inclusively.
The start of a new Government is a boundary time in the life of a nation - as we are poised between one way and another. It would seem a good time for fresh ways of thinking (from the edge, as it were) - a good time for directing all our thoughts to inclusiveness, rather than to the exclusiveness of "them" and "us" however we may define who they are, and who we are.
Whether we are beating the bounds today or not, we can all pick up that idea of boundaries as vantage points, from which we can see all ways. There is a danger of all prayer being too narrow, and of underestimating the generosity and all-embracing nature of God. In the New Testament lesson from Luke's Gospel we heard Jesus' disciples ask him to "teach us how to pray". In his response, Jesus, before he came to the personal bit - "Give us our daily bread, forgive us our sins" - before this he says we must pray "Father, may thy Kingdom come".
God's Kingdom is not offered just as a reward for isolated individuals. God's Kingdom is his rule of righteousness, mercy, justice and love, and it is established by his free, unconditioned grace. This rule of God is perfectly present in Jesus now, and we get glimpses of it here and there in his world and among his people, but it must grow and spread until it embraces all peoples. We pray for the kingdom for all, not just for a chosen people (those where we live, those whom we love, those of our sort) but for God's abundant goodness and mercy to be known everywhere.
"Ask and ye shall receive", Jesus' words which followed on from the Lord's Prayer, may seem to encourage a sort of privatism in prayer - it can conjure up a picture of a "wants list" - "I'm asking Father Christmas for this and this and this" sort of thing. But surely we must always read them with the echoes of John's gospel in mind "whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you". For if we ask in Christ's name, then we will be quite incapable of asking for inappropriate things, everything we ask will be in accord with his kingdom, all asking for ourselves will flow into asking for others.