I know it’s Mother’s Day, but I generally make it a point not to preach about the mothers of the Bible or something similar. Mother’s Day isn’t really a Christian holiday. We will acknowledge it in the pastoral prayer.
Instead, today we begin a series of homilies centered on the Lord’s Prayer. Reading from the Gospel of Luke in the New Revised Standard Version:
11 One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
2 He said to them, “When you pray, say:
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’”
The disciples said to Jesus, “Teach us to pray.”
They made numerous other requests of him, “Show us the Father.” “When will you establish your kingdom?” Who among us will be the greatest?” Rarely did Jesus give them the sort of answer for which they were looking, usually because the questions were off base. But here they got it right. That was a great request, “Teach us to pray.”
They wanted to know how to pray because they had witnessed the role of prayer in Jesus’ life. Preceding any big decisions Jesus went off by himself to pray, to nurture his relationship with God. And coming out of prayer Jesus exhibited great power, great wisdom, great courage. The disciples wanted those things and they were wise enough to figure out that prayer was key.
So. “Teach us to pray. “
Now there were many prayers already known to the disciples, known to them from their Jewish liturgical tradition and known to them from their scriptures. One of these prayers became very popular a few years ago when a pastor wrote a book about it. It’s the prayer of Jabez, from an obscure passage in I Chronicles (that is in our First Testament). The book became a New York Times Best-seller. Have any of you read the Prayer of Jabez? It’s no surprise that it became a best-seller because here is how the passage reads “Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, ‘Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.’ And God granted his request.”
What’s not to like? “Bless me and enlarge my territory.” That is, give me more land. Make me prosperous! “Let your hand be with me, and keep from harm, that I might feel no pain.” Perfect!
And then we read, “And God granted his request.”
Wow. I don’t know anyone like that. I know people who have become prosperous. But I don’t know anyone free from pain.
So the disciples said, “Teach us to pray.” And Jesus gave them this pattern.
For Roman Catholics, this is the actual title of the prayer. They call it the “Our Father.” I actually prefer to call it “The Prayer of Jesus.”
Let’s look at this short phrase one word at a time.
(a) “When we say ‘Our,” we are not being possessive. (William H. Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer & the Christian Life, p.25) We are not saying that God belongs to us, like a pet golden retriever or a messenger boy we employ. We say that God has chosen to be our God. We trace this in scripture all the way back to the covenant with the Israelites in the desert, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” The heart of the Christian gospel is that God takes the initiative. Before we reach out to God, God has already been reaching out to us.
That’s the beautiful and powerful symbolism of infant baptism. A helpless, mewling infant can in no way make a “decision for Christ.” Yet God in Christ reaches out to this child. Grace.
(b) The more obvious thing to note is that its “Our Father,” not “My Father.” In American civil religion so much of the emphasis is on the personal relationship with God. Biblically the emphasis is on the communal relationship with God. Jesus did not call a collection of individuals; he called a group of disciples, a community.
It is right and good that usually we pray this prayer in church with the gathered saints. Yes, you are saints. Biblically, that does not mean folks who are perfect, it means folks who have answered the call, who have responded to God’s initiative.
And the idea of saints extends beyond this life. As William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas note, “This means that you never have to pray on your own. Christian prayer is not like elementary school when the teacher would not allow you to look on someone else’s paper during the quiz. The saints help us to pray…. You may not be good with words. Don’t worry. George Herbert, St. Francis, and Teresa of Avila pray with you. You may not have your head straight on Christian doctrine. Go ahead and pray with confidence. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and Georgia Harkness pray with you. You may find it difficult to make time to pray. Pray as often as you can. Your prayer joins those already in progress by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Dorothy Day.”
In my first parish I was leading worship at a nursing home and had brought a half dozen junior high school kids along with me. At one point in the service I said, “Let us pray together the Lord’s Prayer.” I bowed my head and couldn’t think of how to begin that prayer to save my life. I looked over at the students for help. They all have heads bowed, eyes closed…Totally embarrassed, starting to panic, I thought to myself, “How would Jesus start a prayer? What did Jesus call God? Father. That’s it!! … Our Father, who art in heaven….”
As most of you have heard many times, this was mostly a new concept for the Hebrews, to address God as Father. The Hebrews primarily understood God as a distant, hostile God who needed placating. “Fewer than seven times is (God) even referred to as a father, except indirectly and rather remotely.
Yet in the …four gospels, Jesus…speaks of God as Father more than seventy times. (W. Philip Keller, A Layman Looks at the Lord’s Prayer, pp.11-12).
A new concept when it comes to addressing God.
When Abram met God at the burning bush, he asked God what God’s name was so he could go back and tell the folks in Egypt, and God answered, “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” The Hebrew letters YHWH. We usually pronounce that “Yahweh,” but ancient Hebrew didn’t have any vowels so we don’t really know how to pronounce it. And Jews usually chose NOT to pronounce it at all, feeling that God was too holy to say God’s name. So when reading aloud their scriptures when they came to YHWH they would say aloud “Adonai,” Lord, instead.
But here Jesus teaches his disciples to say, “Our Father,” actually “Abba, Daddy.”
William Barclay told the story of an emperor riding through Rome at the head of his legions. (A little boy) burrowed through the crowd and under the legs of a guard in order to run to (the Emperor’s) chariot. The guard scooped him up and said, ‘Don’t you know who that is in the chariot? That’s the emperor.’ The boy replied, ‘He may be your emperor, but he’s my father.’ Jesus shared the confidence of the emperor’s son. He knew the God so many had perceived from afar with fear and trembling was a father. (Mulholland, p.32)
As James Mulholland points out, Jesus “used father imagery to counteract those titles that kept God distant and impersonal. In our society, where nearly 50 percent of all children grow up with out a father active in their lives, Jesus would probably call God ‘Our Mother,’” (p.34)
For some people “Father” is a negative image. I had a parishioner whose father was abusive. Any time someone referred to God as “father,” especially the preacher, it made her skin crawl and drove her farther from the divine. I like to use as many images as possible for God, recognizing that none of our metaphors is adequate. Father/Mother…doesn’t matter. The point Jesus was making is that this is not a distant, hostile God, but this is one who seeks to be in an intimate, loving relationship with us.
Our Father. We are reminded that we are brothers and sisters. All around the world.
As we pray the Lord’s Prayer together each week in worship we say “Our Father” declaring that these people around us are our siblings in faith.
Again James Mulholland, “When I begin to pray for those beyond my doorstep, then I begin to pray for heaven on earth. I am reminded that God, like any good father, doesn’t play favorites. I can quit maneuvering for better position on his lap.” (p.41)
Who art in heaven
We have said that “Father” helps us to see that God wishes to be in an intimate, personal relationship with us. Yet “who art in heaven” helps to not take that too far. It keeps us from domesticating God. It’s not like going fishing with “The old man.” God is God, and we are not.
Hallowed be thy name
“Name” in biblical times meant much more than simply what we call someone, like my last name is “Chadwick.” So to say “Hallowed be thy name,” means more than “May your name be honored.” One’s “name” means one’s title, character, power and reputation. May all of that be held in honor!
And when we pray “Holy be your name,” we are also pledging ourselves not to misuse God’s name (God’s title, character, power, reputation).
When I was little, I was taught that the commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain” meant not to use cuss words. But that is NOT what the commandment is about. It has to do with ascribing to God things that are not of God. I submit that when someone claims that “AIDS is God’s judgment on gay men,” that person is taking the name of the Lord in vain. Willimon gives the example of German soldiers who went into battle in World War II bearing Gott mit Uns (“God with Us”) on their helmets (p. 48).
Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven
“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is simply another way of saying, “Thy kingdom come.” They are in typical Hebrew parallelism, a style found frequently in the Psalms, for example.
What did Jesus mean by “Thy kingdom”? There is no ambiguity. Jesus talked more about the kingdom of God than about anything else. It is not a typical kingdom. It is not a kingdom of “power over.” It is not a kingdom of violence. It is not a kingdom of wealth for a few and hunger for the masses. The gospel writers declare that Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God and Jesus laid it out in his first sermon in Luke 4, quoting Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free…
Jesus also defined the kingdom of God in the beatitudes, the very heart of the gospel: Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted…”
Good news to the poor; the oppressed go free; blessed are the merciful and the peacemakers…that’s the sort of kingdom for which we as followers of Jesus are to be diligently praying and working.
It seems a long way away from our reality, doesn’t it? Our culture still worships violence and militarism, exalts nationalism over world community, encourages greed, stresses selfish individualism over the common good, encourages competition over cooperation.
And the contemporary Church, by and large, does not provide a strong antidote to that picture.
(I will say that the current response to the coronavirus is encouraging, however.)
In the fourth century the Church sold out. It sold out to Rome. Constantine offered the bishops worldly power and they took it. They traded the kingdom of God for an earthly throne. They traded the way of the Cross for the way of the Sword. The popes even eventually led armies, as the Church became the “Holy Roman Empire” (James Mulholland, Praying Like Jesus, p. 53), almost the exact opposite of the kingdom of God as described and lived by Jesus.
The American Church continues to sell out today, too often going along with the culture, emphasizing individualism over community, “success” over service. Too much of the American church mixes positive thinking and the flag and the pledge of allegiance and self-help and a veneer of Christianity into one big mush of American civil religion, rather than following the way of Jesus and embodying the kingdom of God.
The kingdom clearly has not come in its fullness. There’s a great line attributed to Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher: “Jesus promised us the kingdom, but we got the Church. What a profound disappointment.” I think of that line several times a month. And I include myself among the reasons for disappointment.
Yet millions of us gather in church and pray the Lord’s Prayer…weekly. How do we spell “weekly”? Two e’s or “ea”?
Do we mean it, when we pray “Thy kingdom come”? THY kingdom come?
A little boy was going to bed one night and his mother asked, “Have you said your prayers?” And he replied, “No, I don’t really need anything.” For many of us, when we think about praying, it is just that, asking for things, supplication, coming before God with a shopping list. That’s the prayer of Jabez, “God, please enlarge my holdings and keep me from harm and pain.” Give me the desires of my heart.
Jesus taught us to pray for the desires of God’s heart. Not “Give me what I want,” but, “God, may what you want take place.”
It’s “THY kingdom come, THY will be done…” not “MY will be done…”
William Barclay has said, “Ultimately, there are two types of people, those who say, “Thy will be done” and those who say, “My will be done.”
In the Jan Karon novels, Father Tim, the Episcopal priest from the little town of Mitford, frequently notes that this prayer—“Thy will be done”— is “the prayer that is always answered.”
Philip Keller records that Bishop Taylor Smith, that great and godly bishop in the Church of England, put into one of his personal memos a moving statement of his own relationship to the Kingdom of God. He said, “As soon as I awake each morning I rise from bed at once. I dress promptly. I wash myself, shave and comb my hair. Then fully attired, wide awake and properly groomed I go quietly to my study. There, before God Almighty, and Christ my King, I humbly present myself as a loyal subject to my Sovereign, ready and eager to be of service to Him for the day.” (PP.66-67)
Prayer, as we see it in this pattern Jesus gave his disciples, is not an attempt to get God to do our will. It is to get our wills aligned with God’s will. It is seeking to discover what pleases God. The bonus is that it ultimately pleases us better than our short-term selfish desires. In my life I truly seek to know and do God’s will. And I don’t do so because I am a good, unselfish person. I do it because I am selfish and I have learned the hard way where true happiness lies.
In Jesus we see the wonderful example of one who sought daily to do God’s will and did it. Amen.