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The Greatest Prayer

Sermon - 3/20/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 6:7-13

The text for this morning is the Lord's prayer, from Matthew's gospel:

‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 ‘Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,
   hallowed be your name.
10   Your kingdom come.
   Your will be done,
     on earth as it is in heaven.
11   Give us this day our daily bread.
12   And forgive us our debts,
     as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13   And do not bring us to the time of trial,
     but rescue us from the evil one.

In Matthew's gospel, the Lord's prayer is part of the Sermon on the Mount.  I always like to wear my Beatitudes stole is also from the Sermon on the Mount, and today it has double-meaning for me because it was made by my mother, and this is her birthday today, the first day of Spring.

So, it's been 19 years since I last devoted a whole sermon to the topic of the Lord's Prayer (and I'm sure you all remember that well :). I thought it was due time to take another look. I've been especially inspired by the latest book by John Dominic Crossan on the Lord's Prayer, from which I stole the title for today's sermon.

One caveat that I have to give is that when I selected this as the topic for this Sunday back in January when I set my sermon themes, I did not know that Dom was going to be coming in October to preach here, as part of the Lane Institute of Faith & Education (bringing him for a 2-day seminar), we invited him to preach, and he graciously agreed to preach on this topic. So I wondered if I should change my topic for this morning.

Then I thought: now wait a second. I can include some of those ideas that Dom has in his book, and then when you hear it from him, you'll think "Oh, isn't that neat, this famous author has gotten his ideas from our pastor!". Yeah, right :).

Actually, I'm not going to try and cover everything in that book, but you may here one or two things that sound similar. But if there are any similarities between my sermon and his, it's just pure coincidence (or divine inspiration). Because you all know -- preachers never plagiarize. They just happen to receive the same divine inspiration as other preachers and scholars and authors :).

I would like to share with you his rather unique introduction to his book, because he's so clever in the way he puts things. He says about the Lord's Prayer:

"It is prayed by all Christians, but it never mentions Christ. It is prayed in all churches, but it never mentions church. It is prayed by Fundamentalist Christians but never mentions the inspired inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth, the miracles, the atoning death or bodily resurrection of Christ. It is prayed by Evangelical Christians but never mentions "euangelion", or gospel. It is prayed by Pentecostal Christians, but it never mentions ecstasy or the Holy Spirit. It is prayed by Congregational, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Roman Catholic Christians but it never mentions congregation, priest, bishop, or Pope. It is prayed by Christians who have split from one another over this or that doctrine but it never mentions a single one of those doctrines. It is prayed by Christians who focus on Christ's substitutionary, sacrificial atonement for human sin but it never mentions Christ, substitution, sacrifice, atonement, or sin.

It is prayed by Christians who emphasize what it never mentions and also prayed by Christians who ignore what it does".

So, if the Lord's prayer is not about all those things that we think are so important, what is it about? Dom summarizes:

"What if it is, as this book suggests, a prayer from the heart of Judaism on the lips of Christianity for the conscience of the world? What if it is, as this book suggests, a radical manifesto and a hymn of hope for all humanity in language addressed to all the earth?".

Well, maybe the will whet your appetite, you might want to read the book for yourself, or just be sure to be present when he's here (Oct 9/10th, 2011). I'll also mention that because he's here, we get all of his books at a 40% discount.

One of the reasons that the Lord's Prayer is so beloved, and used by Christians of all stripes (as Dom mentions) is that it's short and to the point. Jesus really knows how to cut to the quick, and just prior to Lord's Prayer here in Matthew's Gospel, he says: "When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard because of their many words".

Well now :). I gave a prayer at the Oregon Senate a few weeks ago (you can find it on YouTube) -- I went back and checked and counted: 370 words. That's because they limited me to 2 minutes, otherwise it probably would have been longer. I told them they needed a lot more prayer than I can do in 2 minutes :). The Lord's Prayer has 56 words, in comparison.

I suspect that our prayers here this morning have many more words than that. We all do it, we tend to be wordy -- we think a lot of words are more apt to be heard. The Gettysburg Address, by comparison, has 268 words. The Declaration of Independence has 1,322 words. The government regulation for the growing and selling of cabbage has 26,911 words. By comparison, typically my sermons have around 2,000 - 2,200 words. So I'm somewhere in-between the Declaration of Independence and coleslaw :).

Though there are only 56 words in the Lord's Prayer (and by the way, in Aramaic it would have been much shorter), I want to devote the next 2,000 or so words to just 5 of those 56 words: "Our Father", and "Thy Kingdom Come".

I believe the heart of Jesus' prayer, as well as his message, is found in those 5 words. And besides, I couldn't cover the other 51 words in less than 10,000 words, so be thankful that I'm going to stick with 5.

It's significant, I think, that Jesus begins this prayer by saying "our" father. How often do we make faith and religion a private affair? It's between me & God. But Jesus never does that. For Jesus, faith is a witness of the community of God's people, not just individuals. To pray "our" father" unites us with all those other people who pray the Lord's Prayer. And that encompasses just about all of Christianity.

It unites us with all other people who pray to God. And right there we've already broken down barriers of race and creed and sex and gender and age and sexual orientations and social status and all the rest.

Many of you received the prayer request of Kyoko this week that went out on our prayer chain by E-mail. Kyoko is one of our members who usually attends the first service, and of course she comes from Japan. You can imagine that right now her heart is heavy. But she has received lots of good news from relatives and friends that she knows in Japan, very fortunate that of all have survived. She sent out this request to ask us to pray the Lord's Prayer each day, very slowly and deliberately, meditatively, and to call to mind and hold those people in Japan in our thoughts as we do so. I don't know about you, if you did that, but I found that to be a very powerful experience. One that creates unity and empathy and compassion. It reminded me as I did so that we are connected by something that is so much greater than and tsunami that even affected the Oregon coast. And is so much deeper than the ocean.

We truly are in this journey of life together, praying "Our Father" reminds us of how connected we are at the most fundamental level.

I want to say a couple other things about just the term "Father", because I know it's sometimes loaded, controversial even. First of all, to remind us that all names, all titles we have for God are metaphors. Our language cannot begin to describe all that God is. We say "God is my rock", and I don't think anyone literally imagines a rock, you know, as God. But we understand that as a metaphor, God is that solid foundation of our faith.

We say that God is our "King", and again, that is not meant literally. King is an image drawn out of human experience, that we use to describe attributes of God. And the same is true for "Father". It's not literal. God is not literally our Father. Father is the name we give to God to describe those attributes of God that are like a Father. So if we ask, how is God like a Father? Would we say God is a man? No, I don't think most of us would. So that particular attribute that we use to describe God as Father is not 'male-ness', but 'parenting'. Whether it be male or female, mother or father.

In fact, as I think probably most of you are aware, there are many images in scripture that describe God as a woman or as a mother. Hosea and Isaiah both speak of God's "womb". Not an attribute that many fathers share :). Isaiah 66 verse 13 says "As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you". Psalm 22 describes God in the role of a mid-wife, of helping someone in a birth.

Thus we can, and I think we should, pray to God as our mother as well as our father.

We had a Mother's Day service a number of years ago, and we had a song about 'Mothering God', I made a reference God as our mother in a prayer. I was in the back of the chapel before the service was even over, and I remember a visitor pulling her young child in tow, storming out of the church, muttering under her breath about this heathen church, you know, praying to God as mother. So I know language sometimes can be upsetting, and not everyone understands why we would change our terminology in that way.

The other problem with language is that if we try to use gender-neutral terms, it doesn't come out the same. To pray to "our parent" doesn't have that kind of intimacy that 'mother' or 'father' does. And that, in fact, is the whole point of the word Jesus uses, which many of you know is "Abba", like "Papa". It's a term for one's parent that connotes a sense of intimacy.

When I was a student at Northwest Christian University, and lived at Hogan House, we had devotion each night led by students. One of the students led the devotions one evening, invited us all to prayer and waited for us to all bow our heads. And then he said: "Goodnight Dad!". Then he jumped up and ran upstairs as well as sat there in stunned silence. That was your prayer, goodnight Dad? Those students :).

Well, Friday, I met with a group of community leaders working on a program at the University of Oregon to come up with a plan on how we can reduce child abuse by 90% by 2030. It's called the "90 by 30" program. It reminding me once again that for many children, they do not have that positive image of a loving, nurturing parent, father or mother. And we have to keep that in mind as well in the terminology that we use.

Another image that Crossan describes in his book is that of God as a householder. The primary role of the father in ancient society was that of the one who ran the house. And a well-run house, where all is in order, where the children are cared for, nurtured, and fed, is the sign of a good, fair householder. In ancient society, the household consisted of more than just the immediate family but also the extended family, multiple generations. It also included slaves, servants, even animals. So the householder serves as the creator, protector, and the provider of that home, and is especially responsible for the welfare of the weaker members in that household.

Recognizing God not just as father or mother, but as our householder, is the recognition of our interdependent relationship with all the members of the household of God. Crossan writes:

"What horrifies the Biblical conscience is the inequality that destroys the integrity of the household, and therefore dishonors the householder. In what sort of household are some members exploited by others? In what sort of household do some members have far less than they want, and others far more than they need? What sort of householder is in charge of such a house?".

Well, the solution of that sort of injustice and inequality in the household of this earth is found in that next phrase of the Lord's Prayer: thy kingdom come. The kingdom of God is the ideal of God's household where every child is loved, every person is honored, every man and woman is treated as a child of God. And it's more than that -- it is the Biblical vision of the ideal world, a Biblical utopia, as portrayed in that final chapter of a Bible where God dwells among us and death will be no more.

Now, I don't understand that to mean literally the case. But rather, if we understand 'death' as those powers -- war and violence and hunger and poverty and human trafficking and addiction and all the rest -- all those forces which destroy life as God intends it to be.

George Buttrick, who was one of the great teachers of the art of preaching, says "The prayer 'thy kingdom come', if we only knew it, is asking God to conduct a major operation. You can't pray 'thy kingdom come' and expect things to stay the status quo. You're asking God to bring about a major change upon the earth".

The great master of church web sites, or at least the master of our web site, Glen Campbell, said it so beautifully in his Heart-to-Heart column 4 years ago. Many of you probably remember it, because Glen said it so well, in which he draws upon the next phrase of the Lord's Prayer (so I'm cheating here a little bit and expanding my exploration), which is "thy will be one on earth as in heaven". And so Glen writes:

Well, how exactly is it in heaven? I wonder if some souls in heaven are rich and others poor? Or do all souls have equal economic standing and security in heaven? I wonder if souls retain skin color in heaven? Are there souls that appear black in appearance, and others white? What about sexual orientation? Do these divisions we see on Earth persist in heaven? If not, why do they persist on Earth? Does your vision of heaven include war? Do violent conflicts break out between warring factions of souls in heaven? Or do you picture heaven as a serene and peaceful place?

The most important questions are these: What exactly is our vision of heaven?  Can we help bring it to Earth?

That's precisely right and expresses what it means to pray 'thy kingdom come'. God's reign of heaven on earth. And that in a nut-shell is what the message and the mission of Jesus, and therefore the church, is all about.

Taken as a whole, then, we see the Lord's Prayer is nothing less than a summation of Jesus' teaching about the kingdom of God. For the kingdom of God is precisely where God's name is hallowed, that is, made sacred.

It is where God's will is done on earth.

It's where the hungry are provided their daily bread.

It's where debts, trespasses, sins, whatever translation you want to use, are forgiven.

It's where evil is conquered and temptation resisted.

And that realm, God's realm, is right here, in this place. When we, trusting in God's guidance, not only pray the Lord's Prayer, but we live it.

 


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