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.


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