A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 28 July 2019 [Proper12]:
Genesis 18:20-32; Colossians 2:6-15; Luke 11:1-13
Teach us to Pray
Who among us would not want a dollar for every time we have prayed the Lord’s Prayer? You and I have said these words countless times; and like anything this familiar, there is always the danger of taking this unique prayer for granted. For many of us, the words just seem to come out of us, as if on autopilot – albeit a reverent autopilot. Yet, what lies behind these words? That’s what I want to speak about today.
“Lord, teach us to pray …” This is what the disciples request of Jesus: “… teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” The motivation behind this request is curious and, I think, telling. The Twelve seem to want a special prayer that uniquely marks them as disciples of Jesus, just as it seems that John the Baptist’s followers had.
I would have loved to been able to see Jesus’ face, as he heard this request for a prayer. In my mind’s eye I envision our Lord’s face expressing something between a compassionate smile and a rolling of his eyes, glad that his disciples wanted to learn how to pray but knowing that one specific prayer (even provided by him) was not the full purpose of prayer. So, in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke we have the recording of the prayer Jesus offers his disciples, what tradition has known as the “Lord’s Prayer”.
Keen eyes will note that there is no exact uniformity in the translation of the Lord’s Prayer. In our own local parish experience, where we have introduced the contemporary translation of the Lord’s Prayer as an alternative to the King James Version, the opportunity to move beyond the familiar in order to appreciate the prayer’s meaning has, I suspect, met with mixed emotional results. Nonetheless, in this sermon I would like to offer a brief reflection on what the Lord’s Prayer actually says or more precisely what it actually offers. This is to say that Jesus’ offering of one special prayer turns out to be an encapsulation of faith. It is, in fact, an expression of what it means to belong to God and to strive to live the God-life. With that being said …
Our Father in heaven …
Of course, these are the words Jesus offers to begin his prayer: “Our Father – Our Father in heaven.” To me, the Lord’s Prayer begins with a simple yet profound understanding about the nature of God and the nature of our faith in God. What this opening phrase indicates is that our life with God is relational and oh-so-very-personal.
“Our Father in heaven” is not something Jesus made up. No, the understanding of God as knowable Creator is something that is replete in the Old Testament. In contradistinction to the mythologies of the Greeks, for instance, the Hebrew notion of God was that the One who created all that is is also the one who calls Israel into partnership in that creation. God is not some abstract, capricious, Zeusian figure. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was not some “Wizard of Oz”. Rather and uniquely so, the Source of all life and light is known in a promised relationship and, therefore, is known and called in personal terms, “Father”.
Yet, for his part, what Jesus did in teaching his prayer was to take that formal and awesome covenantal term, “Father” and recast it in the intimacy of a child’s connection with a human parent. In Jesus’ native Aramaic, the word for this is “Abba”, which is exactly what a child would tenderly call her “daddy”.
From this intimate offering, a case can be made that in giving his followers the permission to address and approach the God of all life in this cozy and tender way, Jesus opened the gates for his detractors to seek to remove him from the scene. God as “Abba” was too radical. It allowed for too much unmediated connection with God, and unleashing that kind of intimate understanding of the accessibility to God in our lives, who knew what would happen, if this sort of teaching were not stopped?
“Our Father in heaven …” From the outset, Jesus teaches that God is neither an angry monarch to be mollified nor is the God-life a matter of not breaking the rules. Quite to the contrary, our God-given relationship with the Holy One is to be honored and treasured, and above all else kept as a matter of the heart. In this, Jesus gave prayerful articulation to God’s very nature, a
nature that is all about God’s presence to us in life-giving love.
Your kingdom come, you will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
In gentle tones, this petition points to the essential and unavoidable religious question for all of us. This is to say, all “spiritual but not religious” protests aside, everyone is religious. As you have heard me say, the problem is what we worship – what we regard as the center. The second element in the Lord’s Prayer stands as a reminder of what must be at the center, if we are to have true and lasting life, if life is more than we make of it.
In this regard, I am mindful of the sobering – and now largely lost – translation of Psalm 100. As the King James tradition expresses it, there is a pivotal proclamation: Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves … Male pronouns notwithstanding, the reminder that God is the rightful Source of life, that we are not self-made woman and men, stands sharply against our daily proclivities.
“Your will be done …” The will of God, as we have repeatedly proclaimed in this worship space, is Communion; and it is only as we trust and receive this holy connection with God that our lives bear
fruit. In his prayer, Jesus calls his followers to remember Whose we are and, therefore, what we are. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread …
An important part to the purpose of prayer is to assist us in discerning between what we want and what we need. Again, as we continually call ourselves to acknowledge the centrality of God in life, the prayer for our “daily bread” reflects the hard truth that we are not self-sufficient, that in fact we cannot provide for ourselves all of what we need.
In speaking these words about “our daily bread” the reference calls to mind the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness and being sustained by God’s daily gift of manna. God provided their daily bread, to the extent that those who did not do the work had what they needed, just as those who tried to hoard for the future only had what the day’s provisions. This is to say that Jesus’ words that petition God for our daily needs are rooted in the reality of grace: that is, that God gives us what we need and cannot provide for ourselves.
Again, our mothers were right: We are to say “thank you” when a gift is given; and we are to share the gift, not hoard it. Gratitude lies at the heart of our request for “daily bread,” which quickly and curiously segues into the next petition for forgiveness.
Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
There are two, essential layers to this part of The Lord’s’ Prayer. The first concerns forgiveness and sin.
Our petition is for that gift that we cannot provide for ourselves: namely, to be pardoned for separating ourselves from God. Sin is separation from God, those times and circumstances in which we either attempt to replace God in our lives or simply ignore God’s rightful centrality. (Sin is a relational word. The quickest way to get rid of sin is to get rid of God.) This part of the “Lord’s Prayer” asks for God’s forgiveness for deceiving ourselves into thinking or acting as if we are self-made.
But there seems to be a caveat to this request for our forgiveness. Jesus’ teaching seems to indicate that the forgiveness we will receive is in concert with the forgiveness we extend to others, to those who sin against us. This is to say that our capacity to forgive others their self-centered attitudes and actions is a measurement of the forgiveness we ourselves are willing to receive from God.
So it is that the second layer of the forgiveness petition also has its roots in grace. To me, this means that the fundamental sin lies in a lack of appreciation for God’s grace (that is, God giving us what we don’t deserve) and God’s mercy (that is, not be given what we do deserve).
Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
Question: Does God lead us into temptation? This question implies that God is some kind of manipulating predator, like some dirty old man who offers little girls candy and a ride. With such an unexamined notion, how would it be possible to love and beloved by God? No, if for no other reason, this is why the modern translation of the Lord’s Prayer matters. No, God does not lead us into temptation; but neither is “temptation” necessarily and automatically bad.
In fact, facing temptation lies at the heart of what it means to be human. For being human and being free is always a matter of making choices. Biblically speaking, the essential and fundamental choice rests with who or what is God in our lives. And again as the Bible conveys, the fundamental temptation for humanity is to wrestle with what is at the center of our lives and to what extent our center is reserved for God and the God-life. Jesus wisely teaches his followers to be aware of engaging in this spiritual battle on our own. For this battle over the center is a trial.
“Save us from the time of trial” is not simply a request but also a profound realization that we are so prone to make our decisions as if we, ourselves, were in charge. Facing the need to make decisions is the unavoidable reality of mature and healthy human life. For no matter how faithful we are, the lure of short cuts and magical propositions always tempt our choosing, which is the reason Jesus teaches us to ask for help, for deliverance especially in those times of trial, where our penchant for self-deception can and does lead us into evil and destructive territories.
This is the reason that in legal circles there is a wisdom (derived from something Abraham Lincoln said) that speaks to what Jesus is getting at in this petition. If one chooses to represent oneself at trial, you have a fool for a client. Especially when it comes to the prospect of falling into evil, Jesus teaches us to ask for help and to call on God for deliverance. For fear and death are formidable foes, when we are on our own; but we need not be on our own.
The Lord’s Prayer concludes with a doxology, that is, a proclamation of praise that reiterates how the prayer began. God is knowable. God is present. The Creator of all that is loves us more than we can love ourselves. To which, in relief, surprise, and great gratitude, we exclaim: “Amen” which means “so be it.”
Jesus teaches us a prayer that conveys how we are to pray, but the Lord teaches more than helpful words we can and do say. More essentially, the Lord’s Prayer conveys the nature of God and what life with God is like. In turn the unceasing love of God for us and the Holy One’s call to Holy Communion with us cause us to want to pray even more. So be it. Amen.