Sermon for August 23rd, 2015
1He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins,for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
7When 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. 9Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11Give us this day our daily bread. 12And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
Teach Us To Pray: Our Father In Heaven
There's an old story about a World War II military airplane that hat been hit by enemy fire, and was going down in flames. The captain turned to his flight crew and said, "Gentlemen, do any of you believe in the power of prayer?" One of the men, a devout churchgoer, said "I do, sir." To which the captain responded, "Good, because we're short one parachute. You pray, and the rest of us will put on a chute."
A recent USA Today/Gallup Poll indicated that 83% of Americans believe God answers prayer. A poll by Fox News found that 77% of Americans believe that prayer has the ability to help people heal from illness or injury. And yet, our belief in prayer is somewhat relative. I suspect that given a choice between a prayer or a parachute, about 99.9% of Americans would choose the parachute.
In the New Testament, Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies, and the Apostle Paul tells us to pray for people in authority. And yet, another recent survey by Lifeway research indicates that Americans are more likely to pray for a parking spot, a winning lottery ticket, or a sports team than for either of these two things. An even higher percentage of Americans have prayed that something bad they did would not be discovered.
Clearly, we are a little bit confused when it comes to prayer. What is it for? Who is it for? How does it work? Is it like a heavenly vending machine? If you insert just the right words (like the right change) make your selection known to God with the push of a button, your desired product will appear every time! Or is it more like a heavenly slot machine? You put in your quarter and pull the lever, sending your prayer to heaven, but only hit the divine jackpot of answered prayer if all your stars line up right.
Or maybe it's none of the above.
In Jesus' time, his own disciples were a bit confused about the nature of prayer, too. In Luke 9, James and John ask Jesus if they can pray for fire to come down out of heaven and devour some Samaritans who rejected them. In today's scripture passage, their request, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples" seems like it has more to do with John's disciples--and competition--than a genuine desire to understand.
Still, Jesus answers their request. He teaches them to pray, and gives them an example, a model prayer, that has lasted down through the centuries to the present day. We call it "The Lord's Prayer" but it is clearly also--more than any other--the prayer of the church, the one prayer that has united Christians of every time, place, language, culture, and denomination. It's one of the few things we all pretty much agree on.
And yet, even this prayer has changed through time--Luke's version is different than Matthew's; the earliest recorded versions used by ancient Christian churches are different from both of those, and the version we recite on Sunday mornings is even more different still!
As if that weren't confusing enough, the Lord's Prayer has been interpreted in different ways by different people throughout church history. It's been divided in different sections, and used to support different ideologies and agendas. I have said many times that how we understand the scriptures has consequences for how we live out our faith and our lives, for how we treat others, and how we relate to God. This is especially true with the Lord's Prayer.
And so, for the next five weeks, we're going to take a fresh look at this prayer we all know, and yet do not know. My hope is that doing this will accomplish three things: 1) To give each of us a better framework upon which to develop our individual prayers and meditation. 2) To help us better understand what's going on in our corporate prayers, in worship as a family and church community. 3) To reclaim the Lord's prayer as a radical call to action.
That last goal is important, because I believe that this one simple prayer, more than anything in our scriptures, our doctrines, our programs, has the power to change us, and to change the world. But too often it's just something we mindlessly recite on Sunday mornings, without really thinking about what we're saying, without really hearing or heeding what it's calling us to be and do.
So. Five weeks. Five Sermons. You have five fingers on each of your hands, and there are five aspects, five phases of prayer that I want us to learn and remember. We can remember them using the acronymn FRESH. I did say we were going to take a "fresh look" at the Lord's Prayer, right?
So today, we'll start with the letter "F" and the first part of the Lord's Prayer, which in Matthew, reads "Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name." Luke's version is shorter, and simply says "Father, hallowed be your name." So what do you think the F in our FRESH acronym stands for?
If you're thinking F is for Father, you're not 100% wrong, but you're not quite right, either. There's been a lot of debate in the past 50 years about using gender-specific titles for God. It's true that the vast majority of references to God in the Bible are masculine, but that's not too surprising, given the fact that Israel was a very patriarcal society. What's more suprising is that there are several places in the Bible where God is described using feminine imagery and pronouns, and at least two of those come from Jesus himself.
Most of us realize, if we think of it, that God is neither male nor female, but rather embodies all aspects of both. Genesis teaches that humans were created in God's image, male and female God made them. For that reason, it doesn't make a single bit of theological difference whether one addresses God as Father, or as Mother. Jesus did what was most natural in his context, and we are free to do what seems most natural in our own.
What's significant about the Lord's Prayer (both versions) is that Jesus addresses God first with the most familiar, intimate title possible--that of a beloved parent. Only after this does he follow it up with a more formal expression of reverence: "Hallowed be your name." And even more important than this, is the fact that Jesus begins his prayer by putting God first within it.
So the "F" in our FRESH acronym stands not for "Father" but for "First things First." In your prayers, put God first. That may sound obvious, but in reality, how often do we begin our prayers with a quick, detached, "O God" or at the most "Dear God" before jumping right into "me, me, me?"
The "me, me, me" part will come soon enough. Even in Jesus' model prayer, the majority of the prayer focuses on our needs and wants. But knowing this, Jesus takes the time to begin his prayer in a personal, intimate way.
Think about it this way: Who would you rather have a conversation with? Someone who begins, "Hey Mister, let me tell you about what a day I've had?" or someone who begins "It's good to see you friend, you look nice in that outfit. You always know how to pick out just the right thing."
Nine times out of ten, our purpose in praying to God is to ask for something we want, or desperately need--sometimes for ourselves, sometimes for someone we know or love. There is nothing inherently wront with that. But pausing at the beginning of our prayer to acknowledge the person to whom we are praying makes space for something important, something we often forget: Gratitude.
If I'm praying for someone I love who is sick or suffering, pausing to put God first means recognizing that God is the one who put that person in my life to begin with; God is the one who has given me all those wonderful experiences and memories that are the reason I'm praying so fervently. And so I can pause, put God first, and say, "Thank you, God, for the gift of this person in my life."
If I'm praying for an opportunity to advance at work or in my career, I can pause at the beginning to give thanks for the skills and passions God has given me, and for the opportunities that brought me to this point. If I'm praying for God to intervene in a difficult relationship, I can give thanks for the obvious desire for peace that God has placed within me, and for all the relationships that are not a struggle.
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. You are first, and I am thankful.
I said earlier that every line in the Lord's Prayer is a radical call to action. This is true of the first line as well, especially in Matthew, where the very first word of the prayer--even before Jesus addresses God as a loving parent--the very first word is the pronoun "our."
Jesus doesn't say "My Father" which would imply that he is not yours. Instead he says "Our Father." Luke's version eventually gets there too, and the pronouns "I," "me," and "mine" don't show up anywhere in this model prayer. That's not to say that we can't bring our own individual needs and desires to God in prayer. But by consciously and intentionally using the plural pronouns, "We," "us," and "our," we connect ourselves and our needs and desires to the people around us. We become, in prayer before God, a community of people working for each other's good.
The radical call to action in the first line of the Lord's prayer is to put God first, and in so doing to place ourselves on a level playing field with all of our fellow human beings; to place ourselves in solidarity with their prayers, with their needs and wants, which are just as important to God as our own.
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. You are first, and we--my brothers and sisters in this world--we are thankful.
At the beginning of this sermon, I asked whether prayer might be kind of like a heavenly vending machine, or even a slot machine. I think it should be obvious by now that the answer is no, not really. And while it's dangerous to compare anything divine to a mechanical process, there is one machine that reminds me of how prayer should work. Don't take this analogy too far, but I think prayer is kind of like a Ferris Wheel, the kind you ride at an amusment park or a state fair.
Just like a vending machine or a slot machine, you put in your money or your ticket--in our analogy, the words of your prayer--but unlike a vending or slot machine, you're not expecting or hoping to get back material wealth or a product of some sort. Instead, what you get is an experience. And instead of pushing a button or pulling a lever, you have to actually get on the Ferris Wheel--you have to put your entire self into the experience.
Riding a Ferris Wheel can be exciting, intimidating, and awe-inspiring all at once (not a bad way to describe encountering God, either!). And the very first thing that happens when you get on the Ferris Wheel is you go up; you are immediately lifted high into the heavens. If you're lucky, you get to pause for awhile there at the top, while you are closest to the heavens, and give thanks for the view.
But then an interesting thing happens. When you're up at the top, you begin to look down, and all around you. You can see higher, farther, and more clearly than you could below. Your perspective is completely transformed. You can see more people and places. And then the Ferris wheel brings you back down to earth, back to those people and places that you now see in a different light.
And if you're paying attention, you might also realize that there are other people on this ride with you--other people in other cars on the Ferris Wheel, going up and around and down, ahead of you and behind you, also being transformed by their own experience and by your shared experience together.
Yeah, prayer is kind of like that. So "F" is for putting First things First in prayer. Putting God first. Maybe it's also for Ferris Wheel, too; for fun, and for getting a fresh perspective--a heavenly perspective--on the world God created and the people within it.
To find out what the other letters in FRESH stand for, and what other things we can learn from the Lord's prayer, you'll have to keep coming back the next few weeks. After all...no one wants just one spin around the Ferris Wheel, right? It'll be fun, I promise!