Beginning today the folks at Union Presbyterian Church will be spending 5 weeks engaging in a close reading of the Lord's Prayer, as inspired by the folks at WorkingPreacher.org and the Narrative Lectionary. Much of what informs the sermon is also thanks to John Dominic Crossan and his book The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord's Prayer (New York:HarperCollins Publishers, 2010).
Scripture can be found here...
It’s the prayer we know so well, we can recite it without even thinking about it. If we’re churchgoers, it’s the prayer we say, at the very least, every Sunday, if not every day. It is probably one of the first prayers we ever learned as children; it may be… who knows?... the first prayer C. and T. will teach J. (who will be baptized later in this service); and it will be, even for those of us who walk into the long twilight of dementia, something we remember, long after we’ve forgotten the names of our own children.
We call it the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ (because Jesus taught it to us), or, perhaps, the ‘Our Father’ (because of its opening phrase). And one of the problems with being able to recite something without thinking about it, is that we do just that: we recite it without thinking about it. Not every time, but often enough that we become dulled, we drift off, we are on auto-pilot while we pray. So beginning today, and for five weeks, we are going to take ourselves off auto-pilot where the Lord’s Prayer is concerned. My hope for all of us in this exercise is this: that we will be awakened to the deep meaning and beauty of this prayer we know like we know our Social Security numbers. My hope is that our praying this prayer will no longer be rote—at least not every time—but that we will experience it as Jesus meant us to experience it: as a means for deep connection and communication with God. My hope is that, in the end, our knowledge of this prayer will be surpassed by our love for it.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus shares the prayer as part of a larger body of teaching we know as the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon, which takes up three whole chapters, is the longest teaching of Jesus in the New Testament. It is so fundamental to Jesus’ message that some have called it the Magna Carta of Christianity. The prayer is found in just about the exact center, the very heart of the Sermon, and that is no accident. It’s the prayer we need to pray if we have any hope of following the rest of the teachings.
So, before we get to pulling this prayer apart, word by word, a word about language. Each Sunday in our church we pray the Lord’s Prayer exactly as it is found in the King James Version of the Bible. Word for word. The King James Version is known for its beauty, its poetry, its grandeur. But it’s good to remember that this 17th century translation was the vernacular of its day, just as the original Greek was the vernacular of its day. When folks prayed this in church in the year 1615, this language didn’t sound any different than the language folks spoke in the 17th century equivalent of coffee hour afterwards. The translation in our pew bibles is more like the common language of our day. It sounds less formal. But it isn’t. It is, for us, the equivalent the King James translation was for 17th century England: our ordinary, every day way of talking.
And now, let’s pull back the camera, and look at the prayer from a small distance, as if we were looking at a map or a puzzle with some pieces still missing. One of the first things we notice about it is that it seems to be divided roughly in half. The first half of the prayer is dominated by the words “you” and “your,” and the second half by the words “our” and “us.” Our first glance at the map tells us that the first half of the prayer is focused on the one being prayed to, and the second half is focused on the ones who are praying. In other words, the first half of the prayer is focused on God, and the second half, on humans—us.
And there’s more the structure of the prayer can tell us. Each half of the prayer can be divided into three petitions: On the God side, the petitions are about God’s name, God’s kingdom, and God’s will. On the human side, the petitions are about our bread, our debts, and our trials. Listen to the sound of the Greek, Matthew’s original language, for the three petitions in the God half of the prayer:
…hagiastheto to onoma sou;
eltheto he basileia sou;
genetheto to thelema sou…
This is poetry. There is a rhyme scheme, there is meter, there may—for all we know—even have been a melody. The Lord’s Prayer may have been meant, like the psalms, to be sung.
So now, we allow our camera to zoom in, so that we can examine the details of the landscape. Even though the first half of the prayer is dominated by language about God, you and your, there is an exception to this in the very first word: “Our.” As in, “Our Father.”
So imagine with me, the first hearers of this prayer. The people gathered around Jesus on a hillside. He begins to speak: Our Father. In this case, “our” is composed of Jesus’ friends and followers, so far, the fishermen, Peter and Andrew, John and James. “Our” would also have included the crowds who had followed him there because he was healing them… other fishermen, subsistence farmers, the occasional tax collector, maybe some shepherds whose hillside had been invaded by the crowd, many of them people who’d been healed of diseases, pains, paralysis, epilepsy, possession. And today? “Our” includes all those present here… schoolteachers and administrators, engineers and mechanics, salespeople and crossing guards, retirees and medical professionals, children and grandparents and great grandparents. And “our” includes those outside our particular walls… other Christians… Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox, Lutherans and Baptists, Methodists and Episcopalians. “Our” includes people in 12-step groups who use this prayer as part of their program of recovery. The first word of this prayer reminds us: When we pray this prayer, we are not alone. We pray it as a part of a community. We pray as a part of a great cloud of witnesses that transcends time and space, the dozens, hundreds, millions of others whose prayer always encircles us and holds us, whose hearts and voices join with ours.
“Our Father.” Jesus encourages us, teaches us, to call God “Father.” It’s important to understand what we mean when we use that word to speak of God, and to speak to God. There are dozens of different words used throughout scripture to refer to God. God is occasionally called “father,” yes. God is also called “rock,” and “fortress,” and “redeemer.” God is called “creator,” and “king,” and “lord.” God is called “shepherd,” and “God-who-sees,” and “healer.” God is called “judge,” and “messiah,” and “peace.” God is even, in Isaiah, referred to as “mother,” and in the gospel of Luke, as “mother hen.” Each and every one of these names for God is a metaphor. None of them is literal. There is only one name for God that can be understood literally, and that is “God.” When Moses asks for the divine name, God answers, “I am who I am.” We name God so that we can begin to approach God, so that our human experience can provide the language for us to begin to understand who God is, and what is the relationship that binds us together.
When Jesus encourages us to call God “father,” I would suggest we understand it this way: like all the other metaphors, the name “father” is not a name God needs, but a name we need. In the biblical era, the word “father” incorporated about four main functions: the father was the one who gave life (along with the mother); the one who provided food and shelter (along with the mother); the one who provided protection (along with the mother); and the one who served as a role model and teacher (along with the mother). To call God either father or mother is to speak to God who is not far off in another realm, completely unreachable and unknowable, but who comes close, who is right here, and whom we can approach with intimacy and gratitude, even love.
“Our father in heaven,” or, as the Greek puts it, in the heavens. In other words, ignore everything I just said about approaching God with intimacy. No, don’t. Instead, hold it in tension with this: God is far off in another realm. We do not see God as God is… thus all the metaphors. And yet we do encounter God. God’s realm is far away and yet it is right here. God is unknowable, and yet we feel we can call God “father,” or “rock,” or “shepherd,” or “mother.” God is completely other than us, yet in us and with us.
“Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Finally, we come to the first petition in the God-half of the prayer: We pray to God that God’s name would be holy. I’ve just spoken about naming God, about why Jesus might choose to call God “father,” and encourage us to do the same. But that’s just one meaning of the word “name.” There’s another meaning: name as reputation, name as character. This is the sense we mean when we talk about not wanting someone to ruin good our name. “Name,” in this sense, has to do with all we know about a person, good and bad.
We pray to God that God’s name might be kept holy. That’s not because we expect God to do something to ruin it. It’s because we’re afraid we might. So we pray that all we do might keep God’s name holy, that all we do would reflect well on God, that all we would do would be to God’s honor. And not the opposite.
“Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” God, whom we know as part of a community of faith more vast than we can imagine; God, who comes close as our creator, protector, provider and role model; God, who is yet mysterious and unknowable: Help us to do only what honors you, only what reflects well on you, and never the opposite. Let our words and actions give your name honor and not shame. If we are parents, let our parenting be done in the light of the amazing generosity of you, our great parent; and let none of us ever forget what it is to be your beloved children. Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Thanks be to God. Amen.