Sermon of the Week
The Lord’s Prayer:
To Whom do we Pray.
So a few months ago, I was on a plane returning from a meeting in Louisville.
It had been an uneventful flight
which was a relief, compared to the topics of the meeting
and I just vegged out a bit.
I read the news,
cued up a movie in my ipad
even closed my eyes for a bit. It was glorious.
After a few hours, I heard the sound and felt that gentle jolt
that marks the final moments of landing on a plane.
The landing gear drops.
The flaps fully extend.
And the plane seems to slow itself so much
that it is barely crawling through space
as it makes its way safely back to earth.
I don’t know how many airplane trips I’ve taken.
They number in the hundreds, most likely.
And I love to fly. As a kid, I marveled at the technology
that enabled tons of metal and glass to soar.
I didn’t want to be a policeman, or a firefighter. I wanted to be a pilot.
I’ve always enjoyed it.
So this wasn’t about a fear of flying or anything,
but I noticed something about myself, when I heard that sound and felt that jolt.
I noticed myself reciting the Lord’s Prayer:
Our father. Who art in heaven.
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done.
On earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom.
And the Power.
And the glory. Forever and ever. Amen.
Truth is, I’ve been saying that prayer, under my breath with lips barely moving
every takeoff and landing, for decades.
Sometimes I don’t know that I’m doing it.
But most of the time I do: I stop what I’m listening to
and I give myself a moment to center myself.
To remind myself of who I am,
of whose I am I,
of the God who loves me.
I thought maybe I was the only one with this little quirk,
but then I remembered back to that time
once, several years ago,
when I was bedside at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
This is a busy, urban, 670 bed trauma hospital,
and I was making rounds as a student chaplain
checking in on the patients in the wings
to which I had been assigned.
I was checking in on Eleanor, who had been a patient there for weeks
from well before I started my three month program.
She was in the “multiple acute conditions” area of the hospital
and that was pretty accurate
she was dealing with organ failure
liver, lung, pancreas
and, when I was visiting her, she was barely responsive.
She was awake, clearly.
Her eyes were open when she was not sleeping.
She could eat, even if with some labor.
She just was not communicating: no real eye contact, no words,
no sense that she heard or registered much of anything going on.
I spoke with her family, who were concerned, of course
and prayerful…glad that the spiritual care office
was there to be with them during this time.
They explained that Eleanor was Methodist
a member for more than 30 years at a church on the west side of Chicago.
I told her that the Presbyterians got along nicely with the Methodists.
This visit, Eleanor was alone,
except for the nurse who checked her vitals occasionally
or the orderly who came to straighten up the room.
And I was sitting next to her, talking with her a bit
to her, sure, but with her, I was hoping.
Even as she was looking into a blank space on the wall ahead.
I went through a few things: my latest conversation with her daughter
a word about the horrible snowstorm the city had the week before
that sort of thing
and then I took out a pocket bible
and flipped it open to offer a quick reading
before I would leave, write in her chart,
and move on to another patient.
I read her something, I don’t even remember what it was, really.
And then it was time to pray and conclude our visit…
And I started:
Whom art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name…
It was right about then that I noticed I wasn’t praying alone.
I looked up, and to my astonishment,
Eleanor was repeating the words of the Lord’s Prayer with me…
Thy Kingdom Come
Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…
And she smiled. And a moment later, it was over.
After that prayer, she returned to her prior, quiet state,
at least for a few weeks, before she left for another rehabilitation hospital.
No other words, or eye contact, or much of anything.
But there was something about this prayer, these words, that comfort
that she could access, when all other words were gone.
And in that moment,
she felt, I felt, grace beyond measure…
a sure sense of God’s reliable presence
That God was THERE, surrounding us with God’s love.
Some call this prayer the greatest prayer, or the prayer of prayers.
You can understand the desire to give it some honorific title
to set apart these words
shared by Christians the world over.
One book on my shelf calls it “the strangest prayer”
which I thought went maybe a step too far
until I considered what John Dominic Crossan meant when he called it that:[i]
It is prayed by all Christians, Crossan observed
but it never mentions Christ.
It is prayed in all churches
but it never mentions church.
It is prayed on all Sundays
but never mentions Sunday.
It is called the “Lord’s” Prayer
but it never mentions Lord.
It is prayed by fundamentalist Christians
but it never mentions the inspired inerrancy of the bible [or] the virgin birth….
It is prayed by evangelical Christians,
but it never mentions the evangelium, the gospel.
It is prayed by Pentecostal Christians
but it never mentions the Holy Spirit.
Lest you think he forgot about us,
Crossan did not.
He also noted that it is prayed for by
Congregational, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Roman Catholic Christians,
never once mentioning congregations, elders, priests, bishops or popes.
There you go.
The point, I gather, is that in a time where a lot of things separate us as Christians
this prayer isn’t one of them.
It would be wrong to suggest that we all treat it the same way, because we do not.
We’ll talk about DEBTS verses TRESSPASSES vs SINS
in another sermon a few weeks from now, for instance,
and we have our own way of understanding what we are doing
and what we are saying
when we pray this these words
but, maybe the most charitable reading is to see this humble prayer
as one of those markers that connect us with Christians all over the world
and all across the ideological and theological divide.
And even as we propose to examine this beloved prayer
from where we sit
from the vantage point of the theology
that we just explored in our last sermon series
a theology where love is the key
where we are inspired to live loving lives
rooted in the hope of God’s abiding presence
even as we propose to examine the Lord’s Prayer
from that perspective
we shouldn’t lose sight of the power it holds
for billions of people
on airplanes or in hospital rooms around the world.
This prayer, as Crossan puts it, is a revolutionary manifesto and hymn of hope.
It calls for God’s justice. It inspires us to trust.
It is the foundation for all of our prayers to God.
We have two versions of this prayer in the bible:
One in Luke and one in Matthew.
People are often surprised to learn, when they read them,
that they’re not the same.
The version in Luke is shorter, condensed if you will
compared to Matthew,
and its in a different part of Jesus’s life story.
That happens sometimes when you have four different witnesses
each with their own take. Perspectives differ.
There is some evidence that a few manuscripts of Luke
actually have the fuller version of the prayer that we’ve come to expect
which suggests that some scribe, somewhere,
when he sat down at his workspace by candlelight
maybe after a glass or two of mead
or a long day of work in the fields
when he set about to make a copy or three of Luke
that he had an idea.
The scribe looked at the Matthew
and he looked at Luke
and he said:
No, that can’t be right
And he set about “fixing” Luke by adding the verses that Luke “left out”.
Then he rolled it up and kept on copying the text and then sent it along
where that copy was then copied by a later scribe, and so on.
We know something like that happened
because we have plenty of OLDER copies of Luke
that don’t have those extra bits
and this sort of thing happened from time to time all over the place.
That’s what you get when
you don’t have the printing press or word processors yet
and you’re relying on Friar Tuck to do that work for you.
Most importantly, though, it suggests that the version we find in Matthew,
the one we read this morning,
for the most part, was THE version
the one that played a pivotal role in the worship and devotional life of Christians.
Everyone prayed the longer prayer,
so Luke had to be cleaned up a bit to make it just so.
Matthew itself seems to be missing the ending benediction
For Thine is the Kingdom, and The Power, and The Glory Forever
But its there,
particularly when you look at other ancient Christian writings
from the first century.[ii]
Apparently, the faithful were encouraged to say the Lord’s Prayer three times a day.
So we’ll be looking closely at this prayer over the next month
as we try to understand what it is about these words
that have inspired billions of people
and, because of that
have influenced the course of our world,
words which have the potential
of helping us welcome in the peaceable Kingdom of God.
Matthew’s version, the one we’re using for this series
reminds us of the importance of our words, and how we lift them up to God.
Just before our reading, Jesus is offering a warning
not to pray in a vain way, to be seen, or for show.
Empty people, Jesus says, love to stand and pray so that they may be seen by others.
The point for them isn’t the prayer.
Its not what is said.
Its not the divine to whom the prayer is offered.
Its all for show.
Don’t do that.
Jesus suggests going and praying behind a locked door
not because prayer has to be private
but because that would have been a corrective to the empty and self serving prayer
Jesus is trying to counter.
There’s nothing empty and self-serving about authentic prayer.
Authentic prayer seeks the right relationship
between pray-er and the one to whom we pray.
It’s not about reward
It’s not about being seen as godly in the sight of others.
It’s about being in the presence and the love of God.
It’s fitting, then,
that our prayer starts with a salutation to God
a form of address to the one we pray to.
Our Father, in heaven
Hallowed be your name.
All of the worlds’ major religions have a signature address to God
words of praise to give respect and honor and reverence.
Our Jewish cousin’s greatest prayer might be the Shema
Found in Deuteronomy 6
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the LORD alone
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart
and with all your soul and with all your might.
Our Muslim neighbors proclaim God is great.
And so too, we have our words of respect:
Our Father, In Heaven
Hallowed be your name.
There are a few things we need to mention here.
Our Father is a common way that Jesus talked about the God he served
The God who sent him
The God who dwells intimately within him.
The most ancient texts we have say:
Abba, o pater: Abba, the father…
Abba was a deeply intimate term
The Aramaic word kids used for their daddy.
This God we pray to is not just up there in the ether, immortal, invisible,
God only wise,
high and inaccessible to us mortals.
Not JUST our God who art in heaven.
But also God as close to you as your daddy.
Closer to you than your own breathing.
Jesus liked to use this language for God, a lot.
And it helps us see what Jesus is trying to do for us in this Prayer:
God is close. God cares for you. God loves you.
Its one reason you don’t have to fear.
Now, this language isn’t always comforting for us, truth be told.
Some of us may have had awful daddies.
Mean, brutish, violent. Ugh. So awful.
And some of us know that
too many like to take this male-dominated-language
from a male-dominated-time
and project that forward
saying that it must always be so.
But Jesus isn’t doing that.
He’s expressing, using the language and tools of his age
that God is caring, and compassionate, and just
like a good daddy would be, and a good momma too,
just like the God he explores through his parables
–The story of the man welcoming his lost son home
–or the one who searches for his lost sheep
–or the woman who searches for the lost coin
–or the person who throws a wild party for those on the street.
There are other images of God in the bible
some of those are feminine too
and so we often pray to God the father, son, and Holy Spirit
one God, mother of us all.
All of this is an important reminder
that the word Abba here
isn’t meant to be exclusive
doesn’t reinforce old stereotypes
but instead tries to break them open
to the God of many names
the God, as the ancients used to say
of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob
The one who is who God is.
That God is also like an intimate parent,
one that is good and kind and true.
That name is important.
It is hallowed, meaning we’re to revere this God
the God who made us and loves us
who leaves us standing on holy ground in her presence.
Moses, it turns out, was called by that God to go save the people from slavery
and when he asked what God’s name was, God just answered
I am what I am
I am God.
I am with you.
Go, set my people free.
That is the God we are praying to when we join billions of Christians
and utter these words week in and week out.
The Lord’s Prayer binds us to God’s purposes
rather than our own.
It reminds us that connecting with God
is the purpose of our prayers.
It’s not about being seen by others.
It’s not about confirming our own provincial perspective.
This prayer tells us
that we are going to be laser focused on God,
the one in whom we live and move and have our being.
We’re going to be exploring this prayer
more closely over the next several weeks.
In the meantime may we,
as we say this prayer
whether out loud together as a church
or silently on an airplane or at a hospital bed or at school or at play
may we know we’re evoking holy ground
and express our amazement and our joy
that the God we meet there
seeks to draw close to us
with love and care and compassion.
May it be so.
[i] The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord’s Prayer (New York, New York: Harper One, 2010). His prologue is entitled “The Strangest Prayer”.
[ii] Most interesting to me is the Didache, an ancient guide book for the early Christian community. It contains the version of the prayer we say to this day, a combination of Luke and Matthew’s version, along with the concluding benediction. The Penguin Classics translation of The Didache, by Maxwell Staniforth, reads “Your prayers, too, should be different from theirs. Pray as the Lord enjoined in His Gospel, thus: ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, As in heaven, so on earth; Give us this day our daily bread, And forgive us our debt as we forgive debtors, And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from the Evil One, For thine is the power and the glory for ever and ever. Say this prayer three times every day.'” Found in Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers. (New York: Penguin Books. Reprinted edition, 1987). p184.
Image found at https://pixabay.com/en/church-praying-prayer-cathedral-768613/ (used under creative commons license)