Choose the Sermon: The Lord’s Prayer

October 24, 2021
Matthew 6:7-15; Psalm 79:8-9

What a beautiful sight, all of us, even in masks, all in the same giant square (or whatever shape this is.) No internet, no Zoom, to mediate us to each other. We are here together, thanks be to God.

“Preach on the Lord’s Prayer,” so said one of you, who chose the Lord’s Prayer as a topic for the “choose the sermon” series. So here we are.

“The prayer that Jesus taught,” as it is often called in the church, is not a long prayer, not as long as the ones most preachers pray. In some traditions saying the Lord’s Prayer over and over again is considered a penance or perhaps more generously, a way to grow close to God. When the Lord’s Prayer becomes familiar enough, it can be held in the heart and on the tongue without thinking too much; it can become like an old friend, a companionable comfort when life feels chaotic, uncertain and unpredictable.

The prayer that Jesus taught appears in Matthew and in Luke. In Matthew 6, it is part of the long teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. In Luke 11, one of the disciples observes that Jesus often goes off to pray, alone. The disciple wants to know what happens when Jesus prays, how does he do it? “John the Baptist taught his disciples how to pray, you need to teach us too.” So Jesus offers this shorter version of his prayer:

Abba God, hallowed be your name.
            May your reign come.
            Give us today, tomorrow’s bread.
            Forgive us our sins, for we too forgive everyone who sins against us;
            And don’t let us be subjected to the Test.     

Some years ago (or maybe last week) I would have gotten stuck at the beginning of the prayer: “Our Father.” Thankfully, at least for today, I understand that it is not that the word “Father” is so sacrosanct. This is Jesus’ way of modeling that God is close, as near as a parent. By calling God “abba” (or daddy) we experience that God is present, accessible, “not in some heaven light years away.” And this parent is the parent of us all, not ‘my father’ but “our Father.”

Which doesn’t mean that we are forever helpless children and God is the patriarch.  It is more a signal that we are known and loved, all related, none outside the family. You might choose a different name for God that speaks to you of being known and loved. Think of how many different ways there are to say grandma – nana, grammy, nona, oma, ya ya, abuela, memaw, bibi, nei nei, Big Momma. When Jesus calls God “father” the emphasis is not on gender but on intimacy. So if Father doesn’t work for you, choose another endearment for God.

It should be no surprise that Jesus, who seems to always be talking about the reign of God, would include God’s reign in his prayer: “May your reign come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We pray this with hope, that the reign of God is possible even on earth. The next parts of the prayer give us tools for at least catching glimpses of God’s reign.

“Give us today our daily bread.” Maybe here Jesus is connecting with his Jewish tradition. Remember the hungry children of Israel wandering in the desert and finally God sends daily food in the form of manna? They collect just what they need for the day.

But there is another way to translate this familiar phrase. Instead of ‘give us today our daily bread,’ it might more properly be translated “Give us today the bread of tomorrow.” This is not Jesus encouraging bigger retirement accounts. He tells parables about that and they don’t turn out so well for the ones with bigger barns. (Luke 12: 13-21) Instead, ’Give us today the bread of tomorrow,’ is a poetic way of alluding to the “great banquet” to come. In other words, help us remember that today’s bread is a foretaste of the abundance that we will all share in the reign of God.

As we pray, ‘give us today the bread of tomorrow,’ we begin to open ourselves to sharing our daily bread; we begin to experience the reign of God, here and now. Jesus starts with bread but we might imagine what else we can share in the reign of God. Housing? Land? Money? Power? Maybe bread is just the beginning of what we are invited to share in the reign of God.

The next phrase about forgiveness also points toward the reign of God: forgives us our sins, (or debts, or trespasses) as we forgive those who sin against us. What a world it would be, like the reign of God, if we could live into forgiveness. Jesus is not pulling this forgiveness concept out of thin air. As a Jewish teacher, he uses what he knows. Hear these verses from Psalm 79:

Don’t hold our former sins against us.
In your tenderness, quickly intervene…
Help us, O God of our salvation…
Deliver us!
Atone for our sins and rescue us for your Name’s sake.

Jesus’ phrasing is more compact and it certainly is not a direct quote from this particular psalm but neither is Jesus inventing forgiveness. He is calling on his Jewish tradition in which people depend on God to forgive them. It is not only God who forgives but we have the capacity, the invitation, to forgive others. When we are forgiven, we can also forgive.

The last phrase, “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” is better translated, “save us from the test” or “save us from the time of trial.” This is not a plea to be better followers of the commandments; this is not about individual sins or misdeeds. We are not saying that God is the “tempter.” It is an acknowledgment that there will come a time of difficulty. This is the Jesus who understands apocalyptic times, that until the reign of God is fully realized there will be times of trouble. And if we are following the way that Jesus lays out, pointing to the reign of God, it is likely we will get ourselves in trouble. It is not a reality we look forward to it. We hope that somehow we can be saved from these hard parts of life. But it is part of what we can expect as Jesus followers, getting into good trouble.

Last Sunday I told you of my plan to risk arrest in front of the Vice President’s residence with others from Congregation Action Network and Faith in Action. Mary Hershberger said she would join me. Others of you showed up to be witnesses. Thank you, thank you.

There were six of us from four different states that said we were willing to risk arrest. The organizers decided it wasn’t a large enough group; it wouldn’t make the statement we wanted, so the plan changed. That felt like a blessed answer to the prayer, “save us from the time of trial, save us from the test.” Then – the plan changed again and we prepared to put ourselves out there, to see if the police would arrest us. In the end, the police blocked off the street, parted the traffic and we stepped into the road. We sang and chanted and prayed freely in the street for half an hour.

The whole event felt like a glimpse of the reign of God with speeches and prayers from an Ethiopian Orthodox cleric, an Imam, a rabbi, an Episcopal priest, a Mennonite pastor, a Korean leader, women and men, in Spanish and English, Amharic and Arabic. And we were spared the “time of trial” – this time. Thank you for joining your prayers to those who gathered; thanks to those who came in body and those who were with us in Spirit.

The disciple wants to learn how to pray. We still say: teach us how to pray. We look for the right way to pray. Some traditions teach the “right” way to pray. The prayer that Jesus taught points us in a direction but it also helps us realize that “right” prayer is not dependent on particular words or even particular places in which to pray.

Prayer can be speaking or singing or silent listening.
Prayer can be breathing deep – while sitting still or while running.
Prayer can be sauntering in the woods – or on the beach, or in the neighborhood.
Prayer might be watching a creature – or baby, or flower – closely for five minutes.

You probably have your own forms of prayer that work for you.

My own experience is that what works now is not necessarily what was meaningful or helpful some years ago. And what works now may change in the future as our bodies change, as family situations change, as the world changes, as our understandings deepen and grow.

What remains constant is the possibility for prayer to connect us intimately to the Holy (hands to heart) and at the same time point us outward, (hands out to world) toward the mysterious reign of God.

The Lord’s Prayer is used around the world as a model for prayer. Hear these snippets woven together from the New Zealand prayer book; from Quaker leader, Parker Palmer; the Dominican Sisters in Kansas; poet George Ella Lyon; and a “bloggers prayer.” Let’s pray:

Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven:
(The New Zealand Prayer book)         

We pray for your reign of peace to come,
We pray that your good will be done,
Let heaven and earth become one. (Parker Palmer) 

Thanks be this day
for food, and air, and water.
Each day You give us all that we need. (from Women Oriented versions) 

Give us today a nurturing spirit.
Heal through us as we ourselves are healed. (Dominican Sisters from KS)
And heed us not
if we believe You look like us
and love us best
and gave us the True Truth
with a license to kill Others
writ inside.
Deliver us from this evil. (from George Ella Lyon) 

For Yours is the power to guide the destinies behind the web logs,
To bring hurting people into the sanctuaries of our sites,
To give us the stickiness to follow you, no matter who is watching or reading.
Yours is the glory that makes people take a second look at our sites and our lives,
Yours is the heavy ambience,
Forever and ever,
Amen (From “the blogger’s prayer”)