Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Lord's Prayer

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 6:5-15:

Just 58 words, or 69 words as we say it every week, comprise the Lord’s Prayer, probably the most famous prayer of all time.  A prayer that most of us learned as children.  A prayer that is so familiar to us that most of us can say it without even thinking about it.  And that is part of its problem.  Because we say it every Sunday, at the very least, it’s one we often don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about what we are actually saying or why, it just becomes sort of a rote activity, and we don’t really think about what it is that we are saying or praying for, and so as we look through prayer in the season of lent, we are going to take a brief overhead view of  the Lord’s Prayer

Last week we heard Luke’s version, which can be found in Luke 11which was given after the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray.  Luke’s version is an abbreviated version of the prayer.  The one we pray is from Matthew, which is given right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount.  We should note that this is a thoroughly Jewish prayer.  It is rooted in Jewish prayers and tradition that Jesus and the disciples with which they would have been familiar.  And   I think that based on both versions of the prayer that we shouldn’t really call this the Lord’s Prayer.  Although it was certainly given to us by Jesus, it was given to the disciples, to us, to prayer and therefore might more appropriately be called the disciple’s prayer, and so when we pray, we should pray like this:

Our father…  Based on this tradition, this is how many of us begin our prayers, but as familiar as this is, the term here is not actually father.  The word Jesus uses here is the Aramaic word Abba, spelled like the disco band, which more properly should be translated as daddy or papa.  It’s a word of endearment and of closeness.  Now father in and of itself implies relationship, and potentially close relationship, which is important to note here, because Jesus does not say pray O God of the universe, or Great and guiding light, instead he prays father.  Those other terms can be useful in prayer, but praying to father implies a God who is present and in relationship with us, and praying daddy, implies a God who is close to us.  It’s sort of like the old card that says that while any man can be a father it takes someone special to be a dad, but many of us feel uncomfortable praying to God as daddy, and so we use father.  I should also note that there are some people who have problems with using the term father for God, for lots of different reasons, and we’ll talk about that next week when we talk about the metaphors we use for God and how those impact our prayers.  But we pray to a God who is like a parent to us, who is close to us, who is in relationship with us.

Our father, who art in heaven…  kids always like this part because it certainly sounds like God is doing art in heaven, perhaps that’s why we have rainbows because of all the art that God does.  The term art comes to us from the King James Bible, and is a fancy way of saying God is in heaven, but what does that mean?  The Greek word translated as heaven is ouranos, which had three different meanings.  The first was that it was the air that is around us, the second was that it was the air that is above us, what we would now understand as the atmosphere, and heaven was also what was called the heavens, which is space and the heavenly spheres, or planets.  So when we pray that God is in heaven, we are praying simultaneously that God is around us, even in the air that we breathe, that God is above us, and that God is ruling over the entire cosmos.  So it’s not really about God in a particular location, but that God is everywhere.

Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…  One of the questions people will often ask me when we first meet is how I would prefer to called, as Pastor John or Reverend Nash, or perhaps Pastor Nash.  My response is that I prefer to be called John, but one person told me that her son was the same age and so she needed to use a title for me in order to keep my role in her life in place, she needed to elevate my position to give me honor and a place of important.  I think the same thing is being done here.  We pray to a God the father who is very close and personal, but there are dangers that God becomes too close, too personal and loses the other characteristics of God. And so we also say that we are going to hallow, or praise, or glorify, or keep holy God’s name, to lift it high.  There is a danger here as well, that if we keep God too distant, that we then lose the personal relationship with God.  Instead we have to keep these two things in tension with each other, that God is intimate and yet we are also to have a sense of reverence and awe towards God.

Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come… What is a kingdom?  Well it’s a geographic area, in which one person, usually a king or queen, is in charge, and everyone else is subject to that person.  A kingdom is not a democracy, in which everyone gets to have a say, but instead one in which there is one person in control and everyone else obeys and serves them.  Now as I’ve said before, the problem is that many of us would like to serve God, but we want to serve in an advisory capacity, but that’s not what we are praying for, because the next line we pray is “thy will be done.”  That’s even a line that Jesus himself prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he asks God to take this cup from him hand, but “not my will, but your will be done.”  God is the ruler, and we are called to be subjects.

Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, where?  On earth as it is in heaven.  What we imagine that kingdom to look like, what we imagine God’s perfect kingdom to be, will impact what it is that we are called to do in the here and now.  If we think that God’s kingdom is about justice, then we will have to work for justice.  If we think that God’s kingdom is about the poor, then we will have to work for the poor.  If we believe that God’s kingdom is about radical egalitarianism, then we will have to work for radical egalitarianism.  God’s kingdom is not about some time yet to come, or about the afterlife.  That’s one of the things that is often said to people in bad situations, that while they might suffer now, they’ll get their reward on the other side.  That is not what scripture says, and it’s not what this prayer says because we are called to bring God’s kingdom here as it is in heaven.  That also means that we can’t just pray for something and hope that God will take care of it, we have to be working towards the kingdom.  If we pray for God to end hunger, then we have to work to end hunger.  If we pray for God to bring world peace, then we have to be working to bring about world peace.  If we want God’s love known by all, then we have make God’s love known to all.

Our father, who are 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…  First we pray to God, and for God’s will, and then we begin praying for ourselves.  In a culture in which most of us are overfed and where food is readily available, as well as when so many people are trying to avoid the carbs, we might wonder why we are praying for bread.  Bread was important in the ancient world.  We know it was one of the primary things found at most meals, and it is also extremely important in scripture.  Bread is mentioned 325 times, and is found in most of the most important stories in scripture.  But we are not begging God to give this to us, as if God doesn’t know we need bread.  This is a petition about contentment, to help us be content with what we have, because we are not asking for two weeks bread, we are asking about bread for now. But there is a curious thing about this petition.  The word was has historically been translated as daily, in Greek is epiousios, but it’s true meaning is unknown because this is the only place not just in the Bible where this word is used, but this is the only place in all of Greek literature where this word is used.  Based on its etymology, it can also mean “necessary” or “continual”, but part of its root also comes from the Greek word ousia.  This is a word that was used a lot in the early church to talk about the essence of Jesus and of God.  And so it could be that when we are asking for bread, we are asking for God to give us the essence of life.

Our father, who are 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 trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us… Jesus introduces the prayer by telling us what not to do when we pray, and then he concludes the prayer by talking about forgiveness.  There is the assumption that all of us need forgiveness, that we all fall short of the glory of God, but we are also told that to ask forgiveness with the confidence that we will be forgiven.  But notice the order in which we do this.  We first ask for forgiveness, and then we give forgiveness.  I think the order is important, because it’s really hard to think yourself perfect, or that you are better than those who might have done something to you, when we have to ask for forgiveness first, because the only people who need to ask for forgiveness are those who need forgiveness.  Divine action of forgiveness and human action of forgiveness are tied together.  And regardless of which word we use, trespasses or debts, there is the implication of sin, although there are other things that are also implied in these words as well.

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 trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…  This is the one that people often wonder about, because it could imply that God will tempt us about things.  In the Epistle of James, possibly in answer to this very issue, James writes “No one when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no on.  But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it.” (James 1:13-14).  One possible answer to this is the issue of punctuation.  As we know commas can be important, and can make all the difference in what we say.  But there is no punctuation in Greek, and so perhaps there is a comma missing, and this should say lead us, not into temptation, implying asking God to lead us so that we will not follow our own natural inclination to temptation.  In Matthew’s version, a little close to the original Greek, we are told “do not bring us to the time of trial.”  This is an eschatological claim, which is about the end of time, and it was said that before the final victory of time that there would be tribulation and persecution, and so we would want to avoid this time of trial where our faith might fail.  And there was no such thing as the rapture, an idea which didn’t develop until the late 1800’s, and I’ll have to tell you at another time why I think it’s bad theology.  But I do not think that we are praying that God will not tempt us, but instead that God will lead us and protect us, and lead us away from evil, or the evil one, whether these are external or internal, they are seen as a threat to faith and our relationship with God.

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 trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.  Amen.  This last phrase is known as the doxology, which means basically glory or praise to God, and it is not found in either the Luke or Matthew version of the prayer, because it is not found in our earliest and best manuscripts.  And if you were raised Roman Catholic then you never learned this part, so where did it come from?  The first we know of it is from a work known as the Didache, which is a series of instructions to the early church, which tells them to pray the Lord’s Prayer 3 times each day, and then includes a doxology, possibly taken from a doxology said by David in 1 Chronicles.  Much later manuscripts then began to include the doxology, probably because it was being said in churches, and so a scribe thought it should be in there and added it to the text.  But when the Vulgate, which is the Latin version of the Bible, which was used by the Roman Catholic chuch, was being made, it did not include the doxology and so Catholics didn’t use it in the prayer.  Instead it was included as part of the mass later on.  But, when the King James Version was being translated, their manuscripts were not very good, they weren’t even the best Greek manuscripts available at the time, and just about any modern translation is better than the King James, they used a manuscript which had it and so it got translated and thus we as Protestants have included the doxology as a part of the prayer.

Probably the most important word of the doxology is the first one, for.  For in this context means because, so we ask all the petitions before this, and then conclude and say because it is God’s kingdom, which we already covered, and it is God’s power and it is God’s glory forever.  While DeBeers might say that diamonds are forever, there is little else that is, except God.  God and God’s promises are forever.  And then we conclude with Amen, which means so be it.  This seems appropriate enough.

But there is one other thing that is important to remember about this prayer, and what we are taught about prayer here, and that is that it is a communal prayer.  It is our prayer.  It is our father, our daily bread, and our trespasses.  We pray in the first person plural, not in the first person singular.  Or as poem that was passed on to me says:

You cannot say the Lord’s Prayer and even once say I.
You cannot say the Lord’s Prayer and even once say my.
Nor can you pray the Lord’s Prayer and not pray for another,
For to ask for our daily bread you must include your brother.
All God’s children are included in each and every plea.
From beginning to the end of it, you never once say me.

God is our father, God is intimate.  God is in heaven, which is around us, above us and beyond us, distant from us.  God’s name is to be hallowed, and God’s will is to be done on earth as it is heaven, which is what we are called to do not only in proclaiming the kingdom but in working to bring the kingdom here and now.  We ask God to give us daily provision, to help us be content with what we have, to give us the essence of God.  We ask God to lead us, to lead us away from our natural inclinations, and to protect us from our worst natures, and then we remember that it is God’s kingdom and God’s power and God’s glory forever and ever.

Saying these words does not make them prayerful, without the intention of having them be prayerful. And these words are not a prayer of petition, but instead a prayer of confession, not in the sense of what we have done wrong, but in the sense of what we believe, of giving voice to our faith and of our deepest convictions.  Praying these words takes intentionality on our part, and it takes us to be willing to live into this prayer to truly begin to listen to God, to bow down to God, and to follow God, and to truly pray that God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  I pray that it will be so.  Amen.

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