Our Father

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | July 3, 2022

Matthew 6: 5-15

The story is told about a newcomer to heaven. St. Peter met her at the gate and said, “What church did you belong to?” The new arrival in heaven replied, “Well your saintliness, I never got around to joining a church.”

Peter said, “The I’ll need to show you around to see who want to spend eternity with.”

They went to a long hallway in which there were a series of doors. “In each of these rooms are people from various churches.”

He opened a door marked, “Methodist” and the people inside were having a great hymn sing. He opened a door marked, “Episcopalian” and the people inside were enjoying a wine and cheese festival. He opened a door marked, “Presbyterian” and the people inside were having the greatest time in a big meeting with an endless agenda of decisions to be made. Some rooms had more people, and some had fewer, but they all seemed to be having a good time in heaven.

The newcomer to heaven noticed that down the long hallway, way down at the very end, there was one door with a sign over it that read, “Do Not Enter!” She asked, “Who’s in that room?” Saint Peter put his finger over his lips and said, “Shhh. They’re the fundamentalists. They think they’re the only ones here.”

You don’t have to travel far in order to meet people who see things differently than you do, especially on the subject of religion. I have convictions about issues that are important to me. Other people have different, even opposing convictions. Sometimes the importance of the common good is greater than our differences. Sometimes the importance of our differences is greater than the common good.

Where we enter the danger-zone is when we start labelling people who have a different belief system. If we start drawing lines in the sand whereby only those on the correct side can claim to be true believers, then God tends to become a weapon. We start shouting our convictions. We can even get violent about it. But who listens? Grace is not self-righteous, it does not judge, and it does not need to raise its voice in order to be heard.

I once served on the Ecumenical Affairs Committee in the Church of Scotland. The idea being that it’s a good thing for Christians to find common ground and get alone with one another.

That’s what I’ve always tried to do. Sometimes it hasn’t worked out so well. When I lived in Clarion, Iowa I was part of the ministerial association. We were basically all on the same team. One time I read in the paper that a new pastor had moved to town. His church was out in the country. So, as a matter of professional courtesy I went over to his house to welcome him to the community. He seemed glad to meet me and asked me in. I told him about our ministerial association and of some of the projects all the churches in town worked on, such as the food pantry. I invited him to our next meeting.

He responded to that invitation by saying, “I can’t in good conscience participate. The Catholic priest is part of that group, and Catholics are going to hell. I can’t associate with people whose theology leads people to hell.”

I said something along the lines of “Oh, really? How do you arrive at that conclusion?”

“Pastor,” he said, “Do you believe in the penultimate inspiration of Scripture?”

“The what?” I said. I know my share of important sounding words, but that was a new one. I thought then about some of the training we received in our fire-fighting classes such as the primary rule, “always know where your escape route is.” I decided to move toward the way out. I did not need to be harangued about my so-called heresy for associating with Catholics

As it turned out the new preacher in town was on a mission from Cod; a mission to save everyone who did not believe as he did, which was basically everyone in town. Even a few Presbyterians wandered into his fold, because as they put it, they were looking for a more “biblical” message.

But he singled out Catholics for special attention.  He was being really nasty about Catholics and anyone who associated with them. Many people became very upset, especially the many Catholics who were targeted by this man for a kind of hard-sell religious assault. But God does indeed have a sense of humor.

There was a man who joined the anti-Catholic church whose wife Catholic. He and the other members of that church tried to save her soul. She wouldn’t join them. She grew so weary of the harassment that she sued the preacher for “alienation of affection.” She asked me if I would give a deposition at her lawyer’s office, which I was only too happy to do. When I arrived there people were standing in line for the chance to offer their testimony.

The judge handed down a decision granting the woman a restraining order against the preacher or anyone from his church intent on converting her. They couldn’t call her on the phone, contact her by mail, or come within 100 yards of her. And he strongly advised the husband that if he wanted to stay in the marriage, he should find a different church.

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he offered them a simple outline. We call his prayer, “The lord’s Prayer.” It is a model for unity.  Jesus said, “Pray then in this way…..’ The first word of prayer he offered was, “Our.” In a sense he was saying, “You are in this toqether; though as individuals you may practice your devotion, it is in community that you begin to understand the depth of your relationship with God.”

In teaching people to pray “Our Father” Jesus was offering a radical new perspective on God. The tradition of his time was that there were two primary ways of referring to God, or we might say, two names for God.

One of the Hebrew words for God is “El.” El simply means “deity.” The Hebrew language combines other words with El to describe God. For example, in Genesis 1, where it says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” God is called “Elohim,” which means the “Supreme Deity.” The Old Testament grew out of a time when it was thought that there were many gods. Every tribe and nation had its own collection of deities. In calling God Elohim, the Hebrew people were saying in effect, “Our God is supreme over all other gods.”

Another name for God was El Shaddai, which means, “God of the mountains.” In English El Shaddai is often translated as Almighty God. Another name is El Olam, which means Eternal God. God is even referred to as El Roi, which means, God who sees me. El is a rather vague term, really. In combining it with other words, the Hebrew people gained a sense of what God does, but not a real sense of who God is.

A different understanding of grew out of the experience of Moses and the Exodus. When Moses was confronted by God and told to demand the release of the people from slavery in Egypt, he asked, “Who are you? I need a name to give to the people?” But God said, “I don’t need a name. I Am Who I Am.” And from that saying came the name of God. In Hebrew the first letters of I Am Who I Am spell YHWH (Yahweh). In Hebrew, YHWH is also the word for “Lord.”

One result of all this, over the centuries in which the Jewish religion developed, was that the name of God became so sacred that people dared not even say it. When scribes would copy Scripture, every time they copied the name of God they went through a ceremony of purification, so that their act would not be held against them.

The way people addressed God affected their image of God. In time, the image of God that developed was one of a remote and awesome Deity. A powerful God who was ready to strike out in judgement. A distant King who ruled with a heavy hand.

Jesus brought God into common life. The prayer he taught his followers contained a revolutionary view of God. No one had addressed God as “father.” No one thought of God as be that personal. When Jesus said, “Our Father,” he was speaking in Aramaic. The word he used was “Abba.” Literally translated, Abba means, “da-da.” In effect he was saying, “When you pray to God, don’t think of a remote deity like an Elohim or a Yahweh. Think of a dad. Go way back in your life to that time when you spoke your first words. When you saw one of those two people who loved you most in the world and their name was the first word you ever spoke: “ma” or “da.”

The limits of human gender do not define the fullness of God. I don’t think Jesus meant to imply that God is exclusively male. He was defining the nature of God as reflected in the relationship between God and the one who prays. People back then were not used to the idea that God is personal; that God is as near as a loving parent.

And more than that, not only my God or only your God, but our God. Amen.

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