Saturday, February 23, 2013

“Thy Kingdom Come…” - February 24, 2013

Texts: Matthew 6:10, Jeremiah 23:5-6
Lord’s Prayer Series, part 2

In the early days of Late Night with David Letterman, back when it was on NBC, back when I was in college and seminary, back before any of you students were even born – that’s how long ago it was – Dave would sometimes do a segment called “Brush With Greatness.”  Audience members would share a real-life encounter they had had with a celebrity.  It was weird because for 95% of these people, talking to Dave would be a far greater Brush With Greatness than whatever story they had to tell, but that’s the way it went.  People would tell their story and then Dave would give them a gift certificate for dinner in New York City or a canned ham or some other fabulous gift.

To be honest, most of my brushes with greatness have not been all that great.  What does come to mind is that several years ago, a number of us from First Baptist attended the New Baptist Covenant  gathering in Atlanta – the idea was to bring together Baptists of all different sorts, different conventions and conferences, different races, different theologies, from all over North America.  It was a great gathering, and there were several well-known Baptists who spoke in different sessions.  One session was running pretty long and I decided to head for the rest room.  There were a bunch of big guys in suits standing around the door – I didn’t pay that much attention because a lot of people were wearing suits – but I went in, and there was Bill Clinton in the men’s room.

Other than seeing a Disney Network teen star, I don’t even remember who it was, when we went to see the Hollywood Walk of Fame, that’s about it for my brushes with greatness.

If you think back on your own brushes with greatness – your encounters with famous people, celebrities, and so forth – I wonder: has anybody here ever met a king or queen?

What kings are we even familiar with?  There is King James – LeBron James of the Miami Heat.  I sometimes drive by a little hole-in-the wall restaurant near the corner of Merle Hay and Hickman Road in Des Moines, maybe you have been there – George the Chili King.  I remember King Friday the 13th on Mister Rogers Neighborhood.  And, oh yeah, of course, there is Burger King.

That’s about it.  The British, of course, have a lot more experience with royalty and an actual ruling monarch, but even then, it ain’t what it used to be.  The power of modern kings and queens is severely limited compared to the olden days.

We are not personally familiar with kings and kingdoms, certainly nothing like the kingdoms Jesus knew, and it can be hard for us to translate Biblical ideas into our day when they are based on metaphors we don’t really understand.

This is not just a minor issue, because the main idea that Jesus spoke of and preached about and taught over and over was the Kingdom of God.  In Mark’s gospel, for example, Jesus’ very first words are: “The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the Good News.”

We hear of the Kingdom of God and sometimes think of something very ephemeral and spiritual, something other-worldly.  Last week, when we talked about hallowing God’s name, taking God seriously, we noted that the ancient Hebrews were very cautious about speaking God’s name.  And so Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” rather than “kingdom of God,” simply because writing to a predominantly Jewish audience, he didn’t want to offend by overusing the word God.  “Kingdom of Heaven” meant the same as “Kingdom of God,” without having to actually use God’s name.  But we hear Kingdom of Heaven, and this adds to our thought that what Jesus is talking about is a future life with God, after we die, in another world.

But when we pray the Lord’s Prayer and ask, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” it is clear that we are praying for something here and now.  As John Dominic Crossan said, “Heaven’s in great shape; earth is where the problems are.”  We are praying for God’s ways of living and being and relating to be the way things are done here and now, in this world.

The idea of the kingdom of God had real meaning, real appeal, because folks knew what it was to live under earthly kings, and 90% of the time it was not pretty.

Most of us have no experience with monarchs, and the minority that have perhaps lived in a country with a king or queen have not experienced the kind of despotism and absolute power that was once characteristic of most rulers.

Henry VIII stripped a man of his lands and his title for laughing at the wrong time.  Louis XIV of France imprisoned a man for life – because he didn’t like the way he looked.  Tamerlane, the Mongol ruler, destroyed entire cities and made huge pyramids of the inhabitants’ skulls.  The worst part is that this kind of stuff was common.

The Hebrews suffered through a succession of lousy kings, each seemingly worse, more corrupt and blasphemous and arbitrary and inept than the one before.  The Hebrews came to look back longingly and nostalgically to the reign of King David.  David wasn’t perfect, far from it, but at least he had some integrity.  At least his heart was in the right place.  Deep down, he was in it for the good of the nation, not for his own personal gain.  He was known, after all, as a man after God’s own heart.

David was more and more idealized and was identified with a coming messiah, one who would bring in a kingdom of justice and righteousness.  This kind of longing is found all over the place in the prophets, including our reading from Jeremiah:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
God spoke through the prophets and promised a righteous king, a coming messiah in the line of David.  What the people really wanted, most of all, was for God to be king, for the kingdom of God to replace the kingdoms of this world.  As John Killinger puts it, when we pray “thy kingdom come,” we are praying for the antistructures of God to replace the structures of this world.

In other words, God’s kingdom would mean the opposite of the way things are.  The world would be turned upside down and all of those things that are wrong would be made right.

If the world was built on the antistructures of God rather than the structures of this world, what would it look like?

In Luke chapter 4 we read about Jesus’ inaugural sermon in his hometown synagogue.  He read from 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,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’  
What he is talking about is the kingdom of God.

Susan and I went to the Theologian in Residence program at the UCC church yesterday.  The speaker was Gary Dorrien, who gave a historical perspective on the progressive theological tradition in the United States.  The first session was about the Social Gospel movement, and largely about Walter Rauschenbusch.

Rauschenbusch was a German Baptist who served a church in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in New York City.  He later taught at Rochester Seminary and is a kind of American Baptist hero for a lot of people.

Anyway, Rauschenbusch served in this neighborhood filled with need and poverty and squalor.  He came in preaching personal conversion, but his experience taught him that personal salvation was not enough.  Particularly the experience of again and again officiating at the funerals of children convinced him that social action and social justice was an indispensable part of Christian faith.  He turned to scripture and found that Jesus’ central teaching was the Kingdom of God.  Jesus said very little about the church but an awful lot about the Kingdom of God.

Rauschenbusch believed that salvation was both personal and social, and that Christianity is to transform the structures of society toward justice.  The Kingdom of God on earth is not just a collection of individual Christians, it means a just and peaceful and fair and society.  And this kingdom is not just a part of Jesus’ teaching, not just a minor point, it’s not just the caboose, but it is the central idea. 

In God’s kingdom, everyone has enough and the bounty of the earth is shared by all.  No one is put down or disadvantaged because they are poor or lack education or because of the color of their skin or where their family came from.  No one faces a tough road because they are too young or too old, or because they are gay or because they are single or because they are female.  The courts and justice system are fair to everyone.  The weak and vulnerable are protected.  Children are valued.  Those with power don’t game the system or profit through corruption.  People are not driven by mass consumption and consumerism and greed and the pursuit of power.

In God’s kingdom, conflict is settled peacefully, the streets are safe and wars are a thing of the past.  The earth and all creation is valued and protected.  Compassion and kindness are values shared by all and people look to God for wisdom and strength.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we are praying for things to be radically changed.  In heaven, presumably, everybody does God’s will.  This is obviously not the case on earth.  None of us, even when we have the best of intentions, carry out God’s will perfectly.  To pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven is to pray for things to be changed dramatically.  The thing is – this includes us. 

I don’t think it is possible to truly pray for God’s kingdom to come and yet not lift a finger towards that end.  We cannot genuinely pray this prayer and do nothing at all to help it come to pass.

I mentioned that Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel movement focused on the Kingdom of God.  It was interesting yesterday to hear Gary Dorrien talk about Reinhold Niebuhr, the leading theologian of the next generation.  Niebuhr was a Christian Realist who thought that Rauschenbusch and his ilk were too romantic, too idealistic.  Their hopes for God’s kingdom on earth were weak-minded dreaming.  In fact, thinking of the Social Gospel folks, Niebuhr said, “Forget the Kingdom of God.  It is wildly na├»ve, it’s not realistic, and I wish the words Kingdom of God were never even in the Bible.”

Niebuhr may have stated things a bit strongly to make a point, but you can see why a person would.  And that’s the issue for us: are we just kind of winking at each other when we talk about God’s kingdom on earth?  Did Jesus really mean all of this, or is this just an impossible ideal?  Or maybe more to the point for us, can we just go back to worrying about ourselves and not have to be concerned with doing God’s will in our world?

Well, Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom might be helpful.  He said that the kingdom was like a mustard seed – the tiniest of seeds, you can barely even see it, but it grows in to this great bush in which birds build their nests.  Or it is like a woman putting a little yeast in the dough – just a small amount leavens the whole loaf.  And he said, “the kingdom of God is among you.”

If Jesus is to be believed, the Kingdom is here – not fully, to be sure, but it is here among us – maybe like a mustard seed.  And we see glimpses of it, if we will open our eyes.

In his book Praying Like Jesus, James Mulholland writes that after he graduated from high school, he wondered what he should do with his life.  He said, “I went to my father and asked, ‘Should I become an actor, a writer, a counselor, or a teacher?’”

His father answered, “I’m not concerned about what you do.  I care about who you become.”

Mulholland wrote, “I didn’t like his answer back then, but I have grown to appreciate its wisdom.  I think God shares this attitude.  God is less concerned about the specifics of our lives and more interested in the kind of people we become.”

Reading the Bible, you get the feeling that God really doesn’t care how much money we have, or where we live, or the clothes we wear, or what cars we drive, or the degrees we have earned.  But God does care about the kind of people we are becoming.

Are we compassionate?
Are we caring?
Are we loving?
Are we forgiving?
Do we share with the poor?
Are we more interested in others than ourselves?
Do we work for peace?
Do we advocate for the homeless and the abused?
Do we advocate for the weak and the vulnerable?
Do we speak words of healing and encouragement?
Do we truly seek the common good, what is best for all?
Are we willing to take risks for the sake of what is just and good and right?
Is life about us or is it about God’s will being manifested in us and through us?
These are the kind of questions that the kingdom asks of us.  And to the extent we see these actions in our world, in our friends, in our church, in ourselves, we are seeing glimpses of the kingdom.  In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that these glimpses might grow and become the way things are.

We are only a couple of weeks into it, but it is already clear that this prayer that Jesus taught is a revolutionary prayer.  “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come – you will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”  Amen.

Friday, February 15, 2013

“Our Father…” - February 17, 2013

Text: Matthew 6:5-15
Lord’s Prayer series, part 1

Pretty well every Sunday, we share joys and concerns with one another and then we have a time of prayer, usually concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.

In Christian churches, this prayer has been prayed more than any other – it’s not even close.  We can say the words easily, we can rattle them right off, sometimes without thinking too much about what it is we are saying.  Maybe we should think about it.

I grew up in a tradition that generally frowned on written prayer.  It believed mostly in extemporaneous prayer - prayer from the heart, they would say (as though prayers composed in advance were not from the heart).  Rote prayer was less spiritual, it seemed (never mind that the deacon who prayed for the offering said the same thing every week).  But the Lord’s Prayer was different because – well, Jesus taught it.  You can’t argue with that.  Although I do remember a first-time visitor here at our church a few years back who left before the service started because we had the Lord’s Prayer printed in the bulletin.  At any rate, like many of you, I grew up knowing the Lord’s Prayer.

In this season of Lent, a time in which we often think about spiritual practices, one of the fundamental spiritual practices is prayer, and one of the fundamental prayers, maybe the fundamental prayer, is the Lord’s Prayer.  We are going to use this season of Lent to think about this prayer, taking a phrase at a time.

In first century Israel, it was a common practice for rabbis to teach a model prayer to their followers.  In fact, in the gospel of Luke, when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, they mentioned that that John the Baptist had given such a prayer his disciples. 

What is interesting is that in the verses preceding the prayer in Matthew, Jesus says, “Don’t try to be all show-offy with your prayer.  Do it in private, don’t worry about using a bunch of words, if you are doing it for the benefit of others then you have already received whatever good you are going to get out of it.”  In other words, while Jesus is teaching us how to go about personal, private prayer, this has nevertheless become the most public and communal prayer in Christianity. 

I think that is OK.  Prayer is not about the magic of saying certain words in certain settings.  This model prayer of Jesus, this template for prayer, if you will, is about orienting us all to what God is about and what following Jesus is about.  And while it may have been taught as guidance for individual prayer, the themes of the prayer are not individual at all – they are very much about the wider community.

The Lord’s Prayer invites us to think about prayer a little differently than we perhaps generally do.  It reminds us that prayer is about what God wants more than it is about what we want.

If you pay attention to the Lord’s Prayer, it is nothing like most of the prayers we offer.  You don’t find the words “me” or “my” or “I” in it.  You won’t find a laundry list of personal problems and concerns.  You won’t find requests for a new car or a great parking place at the mall or even a Cyclone victory.  Now, scripture does say, “Don’t worry about anything but pray about everything,” and there is nothing wrong with lifting all the concerns of our hearts to God in prayer.  But according to Jesus, prayer is not about having our wishes fulfilled by God but rather having our lives transformed by God.  This prayer is to orient our lives to God’s ways, God’s values, God’s concerns, God’s character.  More than anything else, the Lord’s Prayer is about developing a relationship with God.

The prayer begins with two words: “Our Father.”  In Roman Catholic circles, in fact, it is not known so much as the Lord’s Prayer but as the Our Father.

Of all the words in this prayer, we may give these two words the least thought.  We might have questions about sins vs. debts vs. trespasses.  We might ask, “What does daily bread mean, anyway?”  We might wonder what it means to pray “thy kingdom come.”  But we probably don’t much question “Our Father.”  The fact is, these words are packed with meaning and set the tone for what is to follow.

As I said, Jesus is teaching his disciples how to go about private prayer, not public prayer.  And yet, he doesn’t say, begin with “My Father.”  It doesn’t start, “Great Father” or “Almighty Father.”  It is a deeply personal and it is plural.  Our Father.

Chuck Denison asked:

Why will 90 percent of all Americans answer a survey by stating that they have a belief in God, while less than half that many confess to any involvement in a church?  One reason is because Americans have replaced ‘our’ with ‘my’.  This, of course, is stunning because the thoroughly biblical view is that Christianity is not exclusive.  It’s inclusive.  It’s not private.  It’s shared.  It’s not a solo flight. It’s a commuter jet.
Joyce read the text from 1 Corinthians two weeks ago and Susan referenced it again last week.  We are, together, the Body of Christ, and we all need each other.

It is very easy to have a personal claim on God.  It is very easy to speak for God.  It is very easy to make God into our own image, make our pressing concerns into God’s pressing concerns, and turn the deity into our own thoughts and opinions and preferences writ large.

William Holmes Borders was a distinguished pastor in Atlanta who was asked to pray at the Georgia Tech-Army football game.   This was in a time when they always had a prayer before college football games in the south, which I think they still do in some places.  Anyway, Borders prayed, “Dear Lord, bless Army and bless Tech, but bless Tech just a teeny-weeny bit more.  Amen.”  Borders said later that while he was sincere in his prayer, he recognize why he was there and gave the fans what they wanted.  I don’t suppose there is any harm in that, but this is not the kind of prayer Jesus modeled for his disciples.  And to the extent it was directed at the fans and not so much at God, one could argue whether it was really prayer.

“Our” does not mean just the fans of Georgia Tech.  God is bigger than that.  “Our” does not mean people just like us.  God is not just God of the Baptists, or God of sophisticated middle-class-types in Ames.  When we say “Our Father,” that is not what we mean.  God is not just God of Iowans or God of Americans.  And if God is God of all and God over all, then God is not limited to just God of the Christians.  If God is really the Creator of the Universe, if God is really Lord of all, then God does not belong to any particular segment of the human family.  To pray “Our” Father says something about our common humanity, our shared existence.  It says that God is the God of all who are gathered here and God of all in our circle of relationships.  It also means, like it or not, that God is the God of people we don’t like, people who don’t believe the same as we do, and even people who don’t believe in God.  When we say our Father, we are not saying God of my family or God of my clan, we are saying God of all of humanity.

We say “OUR” Father because we can’t say “My Father in heaven.” God does not belong to me.  God does not belong to you.  Rather, we belong to God.

Just as the word “our” is packed with meaning, so is “Father.”  What does it mean to call God “Father?” 

First off, this has nothing to do with gender.  God is neither male nor female.  In Genesis, we read that both male and female are created in God’s image. 

Since we believe that God is spirit, not a created and material being like humans or porcupines or seagulls, not a gendered individual, we might call God “Parent.”  I know of a church that prays the Lord’s Prayer and uses Our Father/Mother, which may not be that poetic but is actually not bad theology. 

If by Father, Jesus is not referring to maleness, then what does it mean?  Why not “Spirit” or “Creator” or why not just “God”?

 When Jesus prays in the New Testament, he almost always calls God “Father.”  And the specific word here is “Abba,” which means something like “Daddy.”  It’s not exactly or exclusively what a child would call one’s Father, but something like “Daddy” or maybe Papa”- it is an intimate relationship.

By “Father,” Jesus is saying something about our relationship to God.  John Dominic Crossan (in The Greatest Prayer, p. 40ff) argues that in Biblical language, Father is most often an inclusive word that is shorthand for Father and Mother, or Parent, and that Jesus is not only talking about Father as the parent of children, but “householder” in charge of a home or an extended family. 

Those who heard Jesus’ words, and most people today, know what a well-run home and a good householder is like.  Fields are cultivated and well-kept, livestock have provisions, dependents are cared for, food and shelter are provided.  Sick children receive special care, nursing mothers get special care.  Everyone has enough.  The householder acts justly, treats everyone fairly, and is a teacher and example to all who live in the house.

A good householder is a provider and protector and model.  To pray “Our Father,” then, is to pray to one who is intimately related to all of us, who cares for and provides for us, who models for us how we are to live.

This is the God to whom we pray.  Not an earthly parent, but Our Father in Heaven.

A family was eating Sunday dinner.  Seven-year-old Bobby was playing with his mashed potatoes when he suddenly interjected a serious question into his parents’ adult conversation.  “Why don’t we call God by his name?” he asked.  “What do you mean?” his parents replied.  “Why don’t we call God by his name?  We always say at church, “Hallowed be thy name,” but we never call him that.”


Well, Bobby actually has a point.  Why don’t we call God “hallowed?”  Or maybe to put it another way, why don’t we pay more attention to the holiness and sanctity of God’s name? 

Hallowed is not a word we use just every day.  I can only think of two common usages.  One is the last Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which unless you have read it may not be that helpful.  The other is that we sometimes speak of a place as being hallowed ground.  For Cubs’ fans Wrigley Field is hallowed ground.  Maybe your old home place is hallowed ground.  It means something like sacred, holy, venerated.

When we pray to God, the first thing we say is that God’s name is hallowed.  In Biblical times, a name was very important and carried great meaning.  You may remember that when God spoke to Moses in the burning bush and asked him to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt, Moses wanted to know God’s name.  Who shall I say sent me?  What is your name? Moses asked.  It was as though if you knew someone’s name, you had some power over the person and if you knew God’s name you sort of had a handle on God.  But God said, “I am who I am.”  That is God’s name.  God is not to be controlled.  God is free and untamed, compassionate and holy. 

The ancient Hebrews were extremely cautious about using the divine name – to even speak it could put the person in jeopardy.  That is how seriously they took the name of God.

Jesus knew that the failure to respect God’s name – the failure to take God seriously, the failure to consider God’s claim on our world and God’s call on our lives and God’s intentions for our planet and God’s values of justice and peace and righteousness and fairness – lie at the heart of the troubles facing his day.  And it is exactly like that today.

When we pray, “Holy be your name,” we are both asking God to make God’s name holy and pledging ourselves not to misuse God’s name, not to use God’s name for our own purposes.  When we hear the commandment to not use God’s name in vain, a lot of people think that is talking about using God’s name in profanity.  And, I suppose that is taking God’s name in vain.  But that is a minor infraction compared to German troops in World War II going into battle with the words Gott Mit Uns, or God With Us, on their helmets.

To invoke the name of a free and holy God as the patron of our own causes is to take God’s name in vain.  And in one way or another, that is something most of us find a way to do. To carry the name of Christ and treat others without respect is to take the name of God in vain.  To speak glibly about what God wants is a failure to hallow God’s name.  To put loyalty to clan or tradition or ideology or nation above commitment to God is to take God’s name in vain.

To pray the Lord’s Prayer really is to learn how to hallow God’s name.  To pray the Lord’s Prayer is to be shaped in a way that leads us to honor God.  Jesus taught this prayer because he knew that prayer is not about us changing God; it is about God changing us. 

Our Father, who art in heaven.  Hallowed be thy name.  Amen.