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July 28, 2019
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Not long ago, a 10 year old boy came into my office with his father, sat down, and immediately began with this question, “What is the meaning of life?” I flipped it—”What do you think is the meaning of life?” He shrugged his shoulders. I said “Great question for being 10 years old—some people never think about that. Here’s one possible answer—only five words. Guess.” Son and father were puzzled. Then I said, “The five words are: To love and be loved. “Oh yea!” they said as if they knew it all along. Then this young boy jumped out of his seat and snuggled under the arm of his father on the sofa. And I said, “Look at both of you—the meaning of life in action. That’s what counts!”
The search for what matters most. We are so busily occupied by what matters less, what matters least, and what doesn’t matter at all until a crisis hits. In our Gospel lesson from Luke, the disciples are wondering about the core as they ask Jesus for one thing—teach us how to pray. They want to know what matters most from the Master. They are all ears. And so what follows are 37 words we know as The Lord’s Prayer. The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 6, also includes The Lord’s Prayer—a little longer, 58 words. And Matthew adds in his version another 28 words to the prayer, all dedicated to forgiveness. More about that later. This simple prayer has been a standard part of Christian worship for 2,000 years. It has been called the First Creed uniting the church around the world. Each Sunday The Lord’s Prayer is embedded in our worship. It is spoken deeply on many of life’s occasions from burials to ground breakings, weddings to baptisms, in the heat of crises, in the joy of celebration, in the tears of loss, at day’s end and morning’s breaking.
As the words flow out of us almost unconsciously, what are we really praying? In short, this prayer is our essence in a nutshell. The 2nd century theologian, Tertullian named this prayer “the epitome of the entire Gospel.” The Bishop of Milan in the 4th century, Ambrose, called this prayer “the pearl of all prayers.” Only a few decades ago, Thomas Merton described his experience of praying The Lord’s Prayer like “swimming in the heart of the sun.” Sometimes we pray the Lord’s Prayer like it’s a menu, but we are summoned to live the Lord’s Prayer like a meal—to breathe it, feel it, embody it. There are five petitions in this prayer. Notice that the first two petitions do not focus on us, but on God’s wonder, while the last three petitions focus on our concerns, echoing Mother Teresa’s point: “God speaks in the silence of the heart. Listening is the beginning of prayer.”
The first petition highlights this point: “Father, hallowed be your name.” “Name” in the Biblical sense is the total essence of the person. So, right off the bat, we lift up the wonder of God’s being. Prayer begins by expanding us into the life of God instead of pruning God into the little world of us. This petition is about God’s grand spaciousness, far beyond what we could ever imagine and far below our deepest depths. “Spaciousness” is associated with the Hebrew word for “salvation” (yasha) and, for me, it is the most palpable word to describe the awesome beauty of God—spaciousness. And when we pray “hallowed” or “holy”, we mean “set part or sacred.” Putting it together, we pray that we may be brought into the expansive, spacious, never-ending, impossible, awesome, wondrous world of God whose presence goes beyond the earth and all stars, whose love is brighter than the heart of the sun, and whose mercy is deeper than our deepest lows. We pray that this spacious sacredness of God may saturate all our systems, all that is in us and around us. That is how God’s name is made holy.
The sacred mystery of God’s spaciousness, is attacked when we make our God too small, as JB Phillips once wrote. We put God into our little boxes and belief systems, declaring that God should operate this way and that way. We put God on a tight leash. And when God fails to deliver our prescriptions, either we failed, God failed, or God doesn’t exist. We have big problems with God as mystery which Luther called “the hidden God.” God doesn’t give us a map, but a mystery anchored in love which we are invited to trust. And this trust is grounded in the gift of Jesus—the God beyond becomes the God below. Why was there a baby in a manger? Why was Jesus flesh and blood? Why was there a cross of suffering? The God beyond becomes touchable, trustable, loveable in the life of Jesus. The cross is God’s commitment that deepest of our deepest places will not be too deep for God. Jesus makes this God below all the more real, inviting us to begin the prayer this way: “Father,” abba, “Mother”, imma—the first words a child stammers, a child who surrenders to the parents. No one in that time would ever address God this way. But this God of ours will always be inviting us into surprising relationships, surprising circumstances, surprising outcomes. Here the surprise is that we begin with affirming our intimacy with the God beyond—abba, imma…father, mother. The key point here is not gender, but intimacy. The God beyond all knowing is the God below in all loving. The German mystic Hildegard of Bingen in the 1100’s, summarized it this way: “The mystery of God hugs you in its all encompassing arms.” Beyond and below, in life and in death, we are wrapped in God’s sacred love.
The second petition: “Your kingdom come.” The word “kingdom” is a strange one in our culture. Essentially it means “May your reality, your will and ways, soak and saturate all our days.” This is an urgent prayer because there is a war of kingdoms—the way of the world and the way of the Lord. We live in an unbridled world of volatile passions, self-protection, untamed appetites, secrecy and deception, lies and delusions, and erasing from our lives those who are different, weak, poor, and those of other political opinions diagnosed as “evil” or “idiotic.” We are in the midst of this war of the worlds. Our prayer is that God’s kingdom will come, and especially that it may come to us—May God’s reality, God’s will and ways, soak and saturate all our days. God’s great desire is that we have the desire to desire the desires of God, as Thomas Merton put it.
But be careful what you pray for. Fred Buechner called The Lord’s Prayer a “dangerous prayer” because our prayer is often “MY kingdom come,” not “THY kingdom come.” And when it’s MY kingdom, not THY kingdom, God has work to do on us. We hunger for God’s mercy, but we run to the hills from God’s mentoring. We hope God’s mentoring of us would stick to a nice power point presentation and donuts. But when God mentors, it’s more like a birthquake than a cupcake. We are tough nuts to crack, and discipleship requires a lot of cracking. Our resistance is high. We hold our little worlds tightly. What will it take for God’s kingdom to penetrate your defense? How is God working to break you open so that you are ripe for the work God wants to give you? Where does God want to take you where you are refusing to go? What does God want you to let go of that you have locked away? What step does God want you to take that feels like falling off a cliff? CS Lewis in his book “The Problem of Pain” notes how when we don’t seem to hear God, God may use what he calls the megaphone of pain to get us on track. So, when you pray “Your kingdom come,” are you ready for the Lord to work his will in your life no matter what the cost? What is the birthquake that God wants for you? By the way, there is birthquake insurance and it’s called “the Gospel”.
Third petition: “Give us each day our daily bread.” Now the petitions shift to our needs, the first one being “our daily bread.” Luther noted that “daily bread” includes everything that sustains our body, mind, and spirit—the basics like food, water, clothes, friends, neighbors, home, family, money, supplies, orderly communities, and you must include our simple breathing. The first word of this petition is the most important: Give. Clearly, life is given as a gift from the giving God. We do not own our life. We do not earn our life. We don’t deserve our life. God’s word brought us into existence and God’s grace sustains us through our existence. But we act like owners—getting, accumulating, protecting, defending our life and all we have, and wanting more. We are discontented and angry when our rights, privileges, and ownership are interrupted. In reality, we came into this life with nothing and will leave with nothing; and in between we build delusions of ownership.
We are invited in this petition to see the truth—our life is a complete gift from the giving God where the only response that makes sense is thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is the best antidote for irritability. Thanksgiving is the pulse that lies behind true joy. True joy is the spirit that powers compassion. And compassion is the energy of true service that enables us to give away our lives in becoming “bread” truly broken for others. Note that we pray for “daily” bread. Here we are encouraged not to dwell in the prisons of the past or the worries of the future. Too many times we are trapped in the time machines of what has been and what might be. We have the now. We have today. We have this moment. May we learn from the past, plan for the future, but live with joy in the present. Grace always shines brighter when we open our eyes to God’s daily gifts.
Fourth petition: “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” Out of the 37 words in Luke’s Lord’s Prayer, 13 words are dedicated to forgiveness. Why this emphasis? Jesus accents forgiveness because the entire creation is at high risk, yes with climate change, but more importantly we are at risk from “relationship rot.” Our world might be defined as a “network of relationships.” And sin in its most basic sense is the “breaking of relationships.” We all experience the symptoms of sin, but the essence of sin is that relationships are fractured, fueled by our self-righteous pride, our hurt, our resentment, our lies and deceptions, our justifications, our stubbornness, our addictions. We are perpetrators and victims of all these fracturing sins as relationships in our world bend and crumble, harden and break and then wither away.
Giving up is easy; relationship work is hard. Tips and tools can help, but even moreso, we are in desperate need of mercy and mercy is not a self-help project. The foundation of relationship repair begins with the confession of our own brokenness, our own incapacity, our own stuckness in the ways of the world, and our deep need for a God who specializes in mercy and the miracles of mercy. Many suicide notes are essentially apologies. So many people are tortured in dark caves of guilt. Mercy is not a simple paint job. The life of Jesus shows us that mercy is always compassion blended with correction. We need to be chiseled down so that we might be open to new pathways God sets before us. We need remodeling, not just a brush up. We need replacement, not just repair. We need transformation, not just a touch. We need an overhaul, not just a fill up. If we stop defending ourselves and lying to ourselves, we might have a shot.
Then there is the other part of this petition—the mercy we receive we are summoned to extend that mercy to others. Forgiveness is circular. What we receive we are called to give. Now that’s hard since we are likely to believe that people who hurt us don’t deserve forgiveness, as one son said to me about his mother. We can justify all our resentments. One definition of forgiveness is giving up our right to be resentful since, of course, God has given up justified resentments against us. God wants bridges of possibility built over rivers of resentment. Death does not win in the kingdom of God. Making all things new is the roadmap for the kingdom of God and we are the stewards of that mission. When we refuse mercy for others, we stab God in the heart and throw mud on the cross. When mercy seems impossible or foolish, allow God to forgive through you. Step aside and let God’s mercy run through you. Paul says in Romans 8 that when you cannot even pray, allow the spirit of God to speak for you. Cast aside your pride, step aside, and abide in God’s guide.
Fifth and final petition: “And do not bring us to the time of trial.” This can be a tough world. From broken relationships, now to the many trials and tribulations of life that hit us from so many places. Jesus was not immune to trials—praying in the Garden of Gethsemane for deliverance from the suffering he awaited, nonetheless, he was dragged to his crucifixion. As he sunk into death, he cried out “My God, why have you forsaken me!” We too pray in night sweat that the darkness of trials would pass from us. In I Peter chapter 5 we are told to cast all our cares on our Lord, for our Lord cares for us. We hold on to too much; God comes to us with open arms.
But when our prayer for deliverance doesn’t deliver, in dismay we feel what Helmut Thielicke called “the silence of God.” So just a dab of background information on why a good God would allow troubling trials: When God created the world in love, freedom came with it, and control took a back seat. You cannot have real love without real freedom. God gave up the sanitized world of control for the uncertain world of love and freedom, a better world, but a more dangerous world. Thus, there is perpetual tension between the way of the world and the way of the Lord. Trials steadily come in a world where freedom unleashes the passions of the human spirit since the beginning of time. This is the cost of a creation that is born in love and freedom.
But the theologian Martin Marty reminds us of this: He writes “I wake up every morning and remind myself that I have been baptized, I’ve been turned over to God.” Being turned over to God—this is our true home which we want secure. The martyred archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero in 1980, facing dark forces, prayed this: “Lord, I can’t, you must, I’m yours, show me the way.” This is the heart of prayer—to turn our lives and wills over to the care of God. Our prayer is that we are delivered from the most painful trial—the trial of sinking into the darkness of despair, the end of hope, outside the home of God. We pray, that no matter what the trials, the hands of God will lead us and the mercy of God will hold us in the spacious, sacred, mysterious, wonder, of God’s surprising love. May you be secure in this never-ending joy. In the name of Jesus, Amen.