A sermon preached on June 29, 2008 based upon Matthew 6:7 – 15, entitled “Praying the Way Jesus Taught Us.”
This is a rarity for me. I’m not preaching from the lectionary. The Old Testament lesson assigned for this week was Abraham sacrificing Isaac, and after preaching last week on Abraham casting his other son, Ishmael, out into the wilderness, I didn’t want to go there again.
After including the “reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant” in our worship service last Sunday, I got into a discussion Tuesday morning about words we say repetitively in worship. Bob Keller pointed out that generally speaking in our congregation the only words we repeat from week to week are the Lord’s Prayer.
If truth be told, every week when I lead our children in this prayer, a part of my brain is still thinking about crowd control, and another part is concentrating on not blowing the words. Consequently, I tend to race through the familiar words without any real attention to their meaning. When I got away this past week for some relaxed biking and hiking with my two sons, I got to really praying the Lord’s prayer, and found it helpful in calling my spirit back home, so I decided that this is what I would preach on.
The words come to us from Matthew’s Gospel in the section known as the Sermon on the Mount, three chapters in which Jesus instructs those who would follow him what it means to be a disciple. It’s tough stuff, including such things as the necessity of loving one’s enemies.
When Jesus turns his attention to prayer, he begins by specifically telling his disciples not to pray like the pagans who use an over abundance of words, in part to impress an audience, and in part to try and manipulate God. Don’t be wordy, he says. Begin with the assumption that God already knows what you need.
Why then, we might ask, pray at all? Praying as Jesus instructed us helps bring us back to where we need to be.
He said, when you pray, say, “Our father…” The word translated here as Father is the Aramaic word “Abba”, which would be better translated “Daddy.” It implies intimacy, tenderness; a father into whose lap you could climb, a father who would carry you home were you to fall asleep late at night on an outing. (As such there is both masculine and feminine qualities in the divine nature — this source of all life — and we could just as easily speak of God as “mother,” or Mommy.)
Underlying this address is the simple, humble acknowledgement that in relation to God we all remain children — dependent, no matter how mature we think ourselves to be. Whether we live, or whether we die, depends to a great extent upon the mercy of God.
We pray “our” father because we aren’t in this thing called life alone. We approach God with others, those who are conscious of their connection to God, as well as to those who have no clue, because God in truth is the father of us all, and yearns for all persons to embrace their connection to the divine.
“Who art in heaven…” At first glance, this may make it sound as though God were far away. Not so. Heaven isn’t far away; it is simply another dimension that we don’t normally have the capacity to perceive directly. Heaven is as close as our breath.
But in declaring God’s residence in heaven, we remind ourselves that God is safe from human manipulation. We human beings perpetually try to turn God into a golden calf here on earth that we can control, so that God comes to endorse our preferred product, whether that be country or race or religion or whatever. God in heaven is safe from all such tampering. God is God, and I am not. My religion is not God. My church is not God. The Bible is not God. We go on to pray, “Hallowed be thy name…” acknowledging the holy otherness of the One we are addressing.
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” Life on this earth is not as God desires it to be. We have this blessing and burden which is freedom, and we routinely abuse this freedom, and so there is much cruelty and injustice, there is greed and hard-heartedness, none of which is God’s desire for life on this earth. Generally speaking, God’s will isn’t being followed. On occasion, it is done partially, but never completely. And so again, humility is required on our part, recognizing we’ve all fallen short.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” This petition brings us back to the present moment, to this day, when we are so prone to abandon this day in worry about days yet to come, or in obsession over days past. Life is lived, if it is lived at all, in the present.
This petition also implies the need to simplify our lifestyle — to get clear about the difference between something we want, and something we truly need such as our daily bread. It involves realizing that we will be just fine going without the commodities which the world tries to convince us we can’t live with out; that our “wants” are, in fact, an endless, bottomless pit that threatens to drag us down, down, down.
To pray these words also invites us to a place of simple-hearted trust. It is to enter into a child-like posture before the good Abba who will not withhold the gifts the beloved child truly needs. My tendency, particularly when life becomes hurried and stressed, is to tighten up and do the Chicken Little routine. In my experience, however, when I manage to keep my heart open with trust, I discover that good gifts tend to flow to me freely, easily, without great stress or strain.
“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive the trespasses against us. And lead us not into temptation…” Again, the words of this prayer lead us into humility, where we acknowledge how frail we are.
Why have I not, as of yet, committed murder? It is not because I am inherently better than people who have committed murder. All of us have murderous thoughts and feelings. My innocence in regard to acting upon these thoughts and feelings has a great deal to do with the fact that I haven’t been led into temptation deep enough where committing murder would be for me a serious consideration.
“But deliver us from evil.” By this we tend to mean, “Please God, don’t let me get on a plane when hijackers are on board. Keep me safe from robbers and rapists and the like”; certainly, an understandable desire. But this doesn’t accurately describe what Jesus had in mind when he told his disciples to pray these words. Something deeper is implied here — the recognition of how easy it is for evil to take root in our own hearts.
Last week we heard Jesus say, “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul…” It is quite possible in the course of this life to lose our souls by having them overcome with evil. It happens all the time. Cruelty is done unto us, and we become cruel ourselves.
On the recent HIV/AIDS retreat, I met an extraordinary woman with a beautiful, sweet spirit. She was not infected herself with the virus; she had friends who her were infected and wanted to develop an HIV ministry in her church in Jersey City. In one of the small group times of sharing, I was privileged to hear her tell something of her personal story.
She grew up on a Caribbean island. For some reason her parents weren’t able to raise her, so she was raised instead by an aunt who truly was, in a certain sense, evil. The aunt presented an image of godliness to the outside world — she was a “pillar” in her church — but within the walls of their home she practiced extreme cruelty, lashing into her niece whenever she revealed the least bit of personality, spontaneity, or joy.
As she described her story, there were two things that struck me as remarkable. First, she never confused the behavior of her church-going aunt with the true meaning of Christianity. It was clear to her that Jesus and her aunt were headed in quite different directions.
(Some people hear “Heavenly Father”, and what comes to mind is their own earthly father who may have been sorely lacking in love and tenderness, and they can’t get past this image, which is understandable.)
Through the difficult years of her growing up, this woman had gotten to know Jesus through her church — a Jesus who was warm and gentle-hearted; full of joy and compassion. She knew she wanted to live with this Jesus; she wanted to be like this Jesus.
But what struck me most was when she described coming to a point as a young woman where she looked deeply into herself and realized she didn’t like the person she was becoming in relation to her aunt. She realized that part of her heart was filled with hatred, bitterness and the need for revenge, and that this darkness was threatening to engulf her. She realized that there was a very real danger of becoming evil herself in response to the evil of her aunt.
She knew that she needed to put a safe distance between herself and her aunt, but she also realized that she had to consciously set about trying to forgive this woman — to let go of the hurts she was holding onto so tightly. It would be in some ways a life-long journey, but she realized that if she didn’t set off on this journey with Jesus, the evil would consume her. She saw that as the words of Jesus’ prayer imply, her capacity to claim her own forgiveness and her wholeness was tied directly to her capacity to forgive that which had been done to her.
William Sloane Coffin said: “If we hate the evil more than we love the good, than all we end up becoming is damn good haters.”
Frederck Buechner put it this way:
“To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back — in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
Every Sunday when I lead us in the pastoral prayer, I pause for a moment, so that each of us can ask God to touch us in those places where the powers of darkness continue to hold us in bondage. Part of what I’m inviting us to do at that moment is to go to the place where evil threatens to engulf us, and allow God to shine some grace in that dark place in our heart.
If you look at every evil perpetrated on this earth, from the enormous evils of genocide, to the little evils of some quiet cruelty perpetrated at your work places, you will see that those committing these evils (and sometimes this includes ourselves) feel a sense of justification, because somewhere in their story there was evil done unto them.
Deliver us from evil, O Lord. Save us from letting the evils done unto us become the justification for evils we would do to others. Save us from bitterness of heart and the loss of our souls.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.