Saturday, January 28, 2023

“Revolutionary Prayer” - January 29, 2023

Text: Matthew 6:7-21

A few weeks ago, I was watching the NFL football game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills.  After making a tackle, a player for Buffalo stood up and then about a second later collapsed.  It was a medical emergency, and it went on and on.  They kept cutting to commercials and would come back and each time nothing had changed, the player was still lying on the field.  An ambulance was on the field and medical personnel were working on him.  The announcers did not know what to say and they were as shaken as anybody.  We heard that his heart had stopped.

And all around, football players were in tears.  They surrounded the injured player in part to give him privacy in the midst of 80,000 people and a national TV audience.  And these players and coaches, from both teams, were praying for Damar Hamlin.  It didn’t particularly matter what their faith or even whether they were religious.  They were praying for their teammate and friend and fellow human being.

In such times, prayer seems to be just the natural inclination of our hearts.  And whenever we join together in worship, prayer is a part of it – connecting with God.

For Christians, the most prayed prayer, far and away, is what we know as the Lord’s Prayer.  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 John the Baptist had given such a prayer to his disciples.  

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.

Well, how do we take in something as powerful and familiar as the Lord’s Prayer?  It is kind of like the 23rd Psalm in that it is so familiar.  And there is so much here.

What I want to do this morning is to look mostly at just two words.  Two little words that are absolutely revolutionary.  Two words that can change everything when it comes to prayer.

If you pay attention to the Lord’s Prayer, it is different from most of the prayers we offer.  You don’t find the words “me” or “my” or “I” in it.  You won’t find requests for a new car or a victory for quarterback Brock Purdy and the San Francisco 49ers.  

Now, scripture does say, “Don’t worry about anything but pray about everything,” and it is good to lift 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 tune our lives to God’s ways, God’s values, God’s concerns.  More than anything else, the Lord’s Prayer is about developing a relationship with God.

So here are those two words, those two powerful, revolutionary words that we find in the Lord’s Prayer.  They are the very first two words.  “Our Father.”  The prayer begins, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”

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,” and we could spend a lot of time thinking about God transforming this world into the kind of world that God would want – on earth as it is in heaven.  

But we may not question “Our Father” very much.  We can skip right past that to get to what we think of perhaps as the “meat” of the prayer.

It is interesting that Jesus is teaching his disciples how to go about private prayer, not so much public prayer.  And yet, he doesn’t begin with “My Father.”  It is deeply personal, and it is also plural.  Our Father.  We pray to a God who cares for us deeply, but not only for us.  

Chuck Denison asked:

Why will [a large percentage] of 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.

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

But “Our Father” does not mean just the God of our side,  the God of our team.  God is bigger than that.  “Our” does not mean people just like us.  God is not just God of the Baptists, or God of relatively in-the-know Midwesterners.  When we say “Our Father,” that is not what we mean.  

God is not just an American God.  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 who don’t believe the same as we do, and even people who don’t believe in God.  And if God is Father of us all, then we are all – siblings.  We’re all brothers and sisters.

Rather than just a kind of boilerplate intro to a prayer, these are two revolutionary words.  Think about how it would change things if all who prayed this prayer took this seriously.  We are praying to the God of people who have different political beliefs than us, different values, who live in far-flung places.  We are praying to the God of people we don’t even like.  If we really reflect on that, and consider the scope of God’s love and compassion, it can change things.  

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.  We are not saying that God is a boy.  God is neither male nor female.  In Genesis, we read that both male and female are created in God’s image.  

If by Father, Jesus is not really speaking of God’s gender, then what does it mean?  Why not “Spirit” or “Creator” or why not just “God”?

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

By “Father,” Jesus is saying something important 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 not only speaks of 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.

I know that “Father” can be a loaded term for some who have not had a good relationship with their father or even been harmed by their father.  Some may be more comfortable with “Mother,” and that is a Biblical image as well, but that may not work very well for everybody either.  I think whatever image works for you is great.  There are all kind of Biblical images of God, but the image Jesus uses is one that is powerful and comforting and caring and familiar, one that is very personal.

“Our Father” conveys two important and powerful things about God.  First, this is not just my God, it is our God.  Yet at the same time, God is deeply personal, deeply invested in our welfare.  This is the God to whom we pray.  Not an earthly parent, but Our Father in Heaven.

We begin with “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”  Hallowed is not a word we use just every day.  I can only think of two common usages.  One is the 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.

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.  In the Hebrew Bible, God’s name is often just written as the consonants YHWH.  When Moses met God in the burning bush, he asked for God’s name, and God responded, “I am who I am.”  God would not be pinned down, God was free and God was holy.  The letters YHWH come from the Hebrew verb “I am,” but because God’s name was so holy they were generally not spoken.  These letters came to be pronounced Yahweh, and this is where the word “Jehovah” comes from.  God’s name is hallowed, holy.

We are to honor and respect God’s name – to hallow it.  Jesus knew that the failure to honor God’s name goes far beyond the way we address God.  Jesus knew that the failure to take God seriously, the failure to consider God’s claim on our world and God’s call on our lives and the failure to take to heart God’s values of justice and peace and righteousness and fairness – this 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 in effect 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 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.  Understanding to whom we are praying and understanding our oneness with all of God’s children puts us in the right place as we pray.

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


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