Sermon of the Week
The Lord’s Prayer:
Forgive, and Help Us When Tempted.
Some of you may remember that I studied Ethics in graduate school.
For some, that’s about as exciting as watching paint dry, I know.
I’ve spent a good chunk of my adult life thinking about good things,
about right and wrong
Or, to be more accurate, how people try to figure out what is right and what is wrong.
It’s not all that easy.
Do you look at what makes for a flourishing human life:
Maybe having enough nourishing food, and clean water;
Good sturdy clothing and a place to sleep safe from the elements;
Access to doctors and a chance to spend time with friends and pets;
A good balance between work and play, learning and leisure.
Do you take all of that and then try to maximize that for as many people as possible
Or maybe just for you and your family, or your country?
Do you work out a system of right and wrong based on how you might do that:
try to make everything end up the best that you possibly can
for the most people you can.
That’s one way to do it.
Or maybe you’re more abstract, and you think about rules:
Treat people with respect, particularly your elders, or your parents;
Don’t steal from other people, or ruin their family lives, or long after their stuff;
Don’t kill, don’t lie, use honest weights in your store, that sort of thing.
Maybe those rules come from God,
Or maybe those rules come from some version of the Golden Rule,
the notion of reciprocity that is found in almost every human culture:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,
What goes around, comes around.
When you think this way,
the rules that are important should therefore
be rules that apply to everyone,
everyone just the same,
in a fair world, a just world.
That’s another way to try to work it out.
There are some others.
But no matter how you look at the task of figuring out what is right and what is wrong,
we human beings have been working on it for almost as long
as we’ve been on this planet,
as long as we’ve had other people to share our lives with.
Our ancient creation stories in the Bible are a good example of this.
The story of the first couple, and the tree in the garden.
Do you remember the name of that tree?
It’s the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
(That was always a sort of a warning for the person who studied ethics, I think.)
Genesis tells us about the fruit of that tree, so tempting, alluring:
like a good, tall cup of lemonade on a warm summer day.
But we’re not supposed to eat from it.
Everything else is good and tasty and nutritious. Just stay away from that one.
There may be no better way to establish a temptation
than to tell someone not to take something that’s right in front of them.
Did God know what she was doing when she did that?
A young couple once told me about a weekend they had spent
raking in their front yard.
It had been a windy week
And the two 30 foot trees on the property, and the three other trees next door
seemed to cover their entire front yard in brown and yellow and red leaves.
They had a lot to do.
So they got to work:
Two rakes, a dozen yard waste bags,
One of those plastic things you slip inside the bags to keep them open.
They had a son. Max was four.
He had his own rake too: this little bright green plastic thing
and boy didn’t he look adorable trying to help out.
Soon the parents had divided and conquered.
There were four or five huge piles of leaves now
all over the front yard, ready to be bagged.
And, as sometimes happens with toddlers, their son got…well, bored.
His adorable rake was no longer interesting.
Jumping in those piles of leaves was fun the first,
and maybe the second time he tried it.
There was still a lot to do.
So mom sat him down on the front stairs,
gave him a juice box and some goldfish,
and said to him
“Max, mommy and daddy have to keep working.
You can stay here and enjoy your snack
or you can go inside and play with your toys
or you can help us rake leaves.
Just whatever you do,
don’t set foot in the street.”
She looked him in the eyes the entire time she said all this
watching to make sure he understood.
Max understood. Max nodded.
He even repeated it back to mommy
in the way that four year olds can. Juice. Play. No street.
And mom was satisfied. Back to raking for her.
Or so she thought.
She got maybe 10 steps away, back to where her leaf bag
lay waiting for another pile of brown and yellow and red
and Max saw that she was far enough away from him
when he stood up
and started walking, slowly, down their driveway.
Max was looking at her the whole time. Direct eye contact.
And she was looking back, watching her son walk towards the curb.
It was a slow street. Not many cars.
She could see a good stretch in both directions, no one was coming.
Max was safe.
But wouldn’t you know it if he didn’t walk right up to the edge of the curb
keeping his mother’s gaze the whole time, remember,
and when he got there
he stepped over and ever so gently
tapped the street with the toe of his shoe…
“Whatever you do, Max.
Don’t set foot in the street.”
So much for that.
Max learned about temptation that day, and about the four minute time-out.
What are we to say about the things that tempt us
for our yearnings and our desires?
Not all of those things are bad.
Wanting to explore, to grow up, to test boundaries and limits
in the wrong time and place, they can be dangerous
whether because of oncoming traffic or the wrath of your parents.
I was reading a heartbreaking obituary this weekend
about a young Vermont mother, Madelyn Ellen Linsenmeir,
who died at age 30 after a lifetime’s struggle with drug addiction.
(See also this reflection from the local Chief of Police).
Her addiction started at a high school party
when she tried oxycontin: a powerful pain medicine.
She was hooked.
That sort of temptation, of boundary pushing, has a lifetime of consequences.
We know that all too well.
But in the right time and place, some of our temptations
our yearnings and our desires can be noble, essential.
The human spirit can be full of these paradoxes.
There’s a movie out right now about Neil Armstrong
and America’s race to the moon, pushing the boundaries on what was possible,
what we could dream or even imagine.
Have you seen that movie?
I’ve not made it yet. But I learned about those Apollo missions in school.
They were full of risky, boundary pushing, daring ingenuity.
Though, I’m not sure if I’m tempted to get strapped to the business end
of a Saturn V rocket.
The Apollo mission worked because we human beings, in our best moments,
find a way to balance exploration with protocol
daring with reason
ardor with order.
Too much of either can be rather disastrous.
But you need both: both desire and restraint.
Sometimes, people think of rules and ethics and law as just RESTRAINT
things that keep me from doing what I want
or not letting me get ahead–
rather than, when they’re working well,
when they’re just and fair and good rules and laws and norms
as something that helps us all thrive,
by setting the conditions for us to be able to live together in community.
As something that helps us take calculated risks,
or to know which things not to try on our own at all, like narcotics
and which things, under the right conditions, might be worth it.
Sure, it might be fun to think of my little side street as the autobahn
that highway in Germany where you can open the throttle
and see how fast your little SUV can go.
But the 25 mile an hour speed limit is probably better, don’t you think,
not just for me,
but for those toddlers testing limits in their front yards.
We spend our whole life wrestling with the things that tempt us.
The truth is that we are not always successful with that, with temptation.
The Apostle Paul knew this too.
He wrote about this rather clearly in the letter he sent to the church in Rome
“I do not understand my own actions” Paul said
“For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
He wrote that, though, right before reminding us that nothing,
not even that, not even our inner temptations and the things we do from them
that can hurt us or hurt others,
not even that can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus.
I saw a video this week that had me thinking about our temptations,
About my own temptations.
I think this could have been me as a kid
having been told that something wasn’t a very good idea
often that made me want it all the more.
Who wouldn’t want to taste chocolate powder?:
Not every temptation should be tried:
Well, that was a bad idea, wasn’t it?
I bet, next time, he’ll be more likely to take his mother’s advice….
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….
During the month of October
we’ve been looking closely at The Lord’s Prayer,
these words that Jesus taught us to lift up to God
as a way for us to focus on the one who made us and who loves us
the one who gives us life
who orders our passions and
who fires and enlivens our imaginations as well.
You might have sensed by now
that the Lord’s prayer isn’t a haphazard set of ideas
jumbled all together.
There’s an order to it. A purpose:
To whom do we pray?
We pray to God, the one Jesus called Abba, daddy, father
because of God’s intimate care for us and our lives.
Because, in the end, it is only God who can help save us
and who can help mend this broken world.
What do we pray for?
We pray that the intentions that God has for this world
might happen here: thy kingdom come, thy will be done
and that God will help us do what we can to bring it about.
How can I be a part of that work of building God’s kingdom?
Well, God will help provide you with what you need:
Give us this day our daily bread
Not just food, not just bread,
but all those things that make for a flourishing life
that we mentioned earlier: food and drink and friends and work and leisure.
God: help provide us with those things; help us provide those things to others.
There’s an order here.
Can you see it unfolding?
The life of prayer opens our eyes to the God who is already there
already walking with us in our daily efforts
already trying to inspire us to dream amazing dreams
and make good choices
and to give us resolve to keep them
and to help us clean them up when we don’t quite choose wisely.
And this prayer, in particular,
is the way that Jesus wants us to focus our attention on the fullness
of what God is doing:
God loves you,
God is bringing about a new heaven and a new earth
One that is marked by love and peace and compassion and forgiveness
God wants you to be a part of it
And will free you from your fears and anxieties of having enough.
And then we get to the next two clauses of the Lord’s Prayer
our focus for today:
Forgive us our debts/sins/trespasses
(depending on which tradition of the church you come from)
And lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from Evil.
I wish I had a tidy explanation for why some churches use debts
and others say sins and still more use trespasses.
I’ve actually seen good church people argue and argue and argue
about which is the “right one” for hours.
That’s about as much use as fighting over which is better: Coke or Pepsi Cola.
(We all know its Pepsi, right? Just checking)
The answer isn’t tidy, at least not for a 20 minute sermon.
Both debts and sins can be found in various places in the bible,
though debts is the one found more often,
And trespasses was an effort made, long ago,
to help us understand that we’re not just talking about financial matters,
or a system of obligation, of dues.
Debts might imply that, when the original concept really is much broader.
Today, in a way, trespasses and debts both feel stodgy, and old-timey,
as my kids like to say,
sort of the same way that the “thous” and the “wherefores” and the “shalts”
of some older translations sound to modern ears.
And then there’s the option to use “forgive us our sins”
though that’s not used as much as debts in the original text.
To sin means to miss the mark,
to be doing something that isn’t what God intends for you or for others.
To help us get past this impasse,
some newer translations merely use the word “wronged”
to help us get the point.
“Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you,
just as we forgive those who have wronged us…”
(The Common English Bible)
We could get bogged down here in some of the details,
but it doesn’t matter too much which of the ideas you use.
The concept is the same:
God, help us to realize that, in your kingdom,
Our wrongs are set right, our failings are redeemed
Our deep pain and guilt are turned into acts of reconciliation
And our temptations are turned upside down.
We are tempted by what we desire, what we yearn for
but which we’re not quite sure about.
Is it a good idea?
Should I go after it?
I’m weighing here, what are the options, what are the ramifications
What are the rules.
We’re rarely tempted by just one thing.
Often temptations fold in on each other:
I want to drive fast because I want to get there faster,
and I love the thrill of my Toyota pushing 90,
and I don’t always want to feel like a rule follower,
and I’m confident in my abilities but I want to be sure I can do it
and so on.
Some of those temptations may be less of a concern than others.
Rarely is it simply a matter of right or wrong, black or white.
Not every temptation is bad or wrong.
Not every yearning satisfied is a problem.
And sometimes we don’t quite know the full context of what we’re considering.
Take, for instance, this story about James and John
the story in Mark, where both ask Jesus to let them sit at his right hand and his left.
Here’s a story of temptation:
but it’s complicated.
Not as obvious as it looks.
Its not just that James and John want to get ahead
that they’re sneaking behind the backs of the other disciples
and are trying to get an advantage.
They wanted to be a part of God’s kingdom.
They wanted to be near Jesus, to do what Jesus does.
Jesus asks them about their intentions.
He clarifies what the cost is going to be—a life of sacrifice and selflessness
and he doesn’t rebuke them for it. But he tells them that it’s up to God,
and for them to try to follow God’s path, not their own.
And later, when the other disciples get wind of all of this
and start getting agitated, and upset
Jesus reminds them that this jockeying for position isn’t really helpful,
because in the Kingdom of God that he is bringing about
we are all about serving one another, about taking the last seat at the table
“The first shall be last, but the last shall be first…”
That’s a kind of temptation that we all know:
This desire to be near the powerful, or the wise,
or the ones with all the fame and prestige. The hope to wield it ourselves.
Certainly, at this time, Jesus had that fame and that honor.
Crowds were coming from the whole countryside to see him
sometimes making it feel like the crowd at an Ed Sheeran concert, I’m sure.
Don’t get caught up in all that, says Jesus.
That sort of temptation leads to all sorts of compromise, all sorts of bad choices.
Instead, seek out the kingdom of God, and its righteousness.
Be tempted into THAT
And find out how God’s world can lure you through
the power of love and peace and friendship and service to one another.
When you pray, Jesus says,
Ask for forgiveness, when you err
and ask God to help lead you in the right sort of choices
the good choices, the healthy choices: the choices that help God’s world flourish
that help keep you safe
that bring about dreams and hopes and possibilities
so that good may abound.
We are, all of us, constantly working out what is good and what is bad
what is right and what is wrong.
We lean on our experience, those who taught us, our instinct and our prayers.
We learn from the mistakes of others.
We try to understand our yearnings and our desires
and to give them healthy and appropriate outlets.
All of these things is how God made us.
They are a part of our lives.
and we lift them up to God, and we thank God for the fact that
God gives us the ability to discern and to think and to choose, to avoid evil,
and even if we fall short
we ask for God’s forgiveness and God’s guidance even so.
With God’s help, we can make good choices
Dream brave dreams
Make bold choices
Try daring steps: for the good and the beautiful and the true things in our lives.
We can be tempted to do good,
to forgive with trust that God can bring healing
and that we all are surrounded by God’s loving care.
What a better way to live than the other alternatives.
May we, today, celebrate God’s amazing care for us
and pray God’s prayer with trust
that God values forgiveness and good choices, both
and that God will help us make those good choices
and will help us find forgiveness when we falter.
May it be so. Amen.