Preached July 28, 2013
Texts: Matthew 6:9, Psalm 105:1-7
“This, then, is how you should pray,” introduces the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s gospel.
In Luke’s Gospel, it begins with a request: “Lord, teach us to pray…”
It is sort of funny that even with Jesus’ very direct instruction – pray this way, these words – we can still mess this Lord’s Prayer up!
Oh, sure, most of us know it by heart. We recite it each week in worship, and at most weddings, funerals and other religious and civic functions. But for all its familiarity, you’d be amazed at the number of times we become tongue-tied when praying it!
For example: At a shared service last spring, we all started together, but we couldn’t end together! Some prayed “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass…” while others prayed, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” The “debts” folks were so far ahead of the “trespasses” folks that we all got lost, until finally someone yelled out above the clamor of voices, “FOR THINE” and we all joined together for the final words.
Of course, that closing doxology itself can be problematic when you have Catholics and Protestants worshiping together. Some of you may know that the Roman Catholic church does not include “for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever…”, and in the Orthodox tradition it is spoken only by the priest after the congregation ends the prayer proper. Have you ever been that one lone voice that continues on after everyone else ends? I’ve done it a couple of times. It can be embarrassing!
A few years ago, my husband and I attended mass at Notre Dame in Paris. As we recited, “but deliver us from evil,” I realized he might not know to leave those last words off the prayer. The only thing I could think of was to squeeze hard on his hand held in mine, hoping that the distraction might stop his words long enough for him to realize!
Then there is my biggest fear when I’m leading the Lord’s Prayer: my mind going blank. A few years ago, when a friend leading worship, his mind went blank, he dropped a line, and the entire congregation fell silent!
So perhaps, “This, then, is how you should pray…” is not so straight-forward as it might seem. But it is more because of the content of the prayer than its form, really. It’s one thing to stumble over a line because our mind goes blank; it’s another to pause and ponder the depth of a line before we are ready to speak it. The remaining weeks of the summer, we will take time to pause and ponder. This is an opportunity to think more deeply about what we pray when we recite this prayer.
We begin today with the first line:
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”
Most of us say this opening line without a second thought, but we must acknowledge that for a few, naming God as “Father” is painful. Theologian Roberta Bondi describes her own struggle with the language:
Like many other people, having transferred to God the Father all the pain I felt around my human father, I simply couldn’t get past the father language of the prayer to reach God.
For Bondi, though, avoiding the prayer was not the answer. Rather, it was learning to pray “Our Father” that brought healing. She describes the way she prays specifically for those with whom she is angry or disappointed. “My Father, and the Father of my father,” she prays. “My Father and the Father of my enemies.”
It has become her daily habit to include those in her prayer who bring tension into her life. By doing so, she says, she is reminded of her own safety and security under her Father’s care – but also of the worth and value of the other person. “What nearly always comes along with the words of the prayer,” she writes, “is an immediate, intimate awareness of our being equally loved members of God’s family.”
Being drawn into relationship with God means also being drawn into relationship with one another. We do not pray, “My father.” We began the summer studying the 23rd Psalm, which is all about the intimate way that the Lord cares for each one of us personally and individually: “The Lord is my shepherd.” The Lord’s prayer invites us to broaden our thinking, to consider the ways that God is not only my Father; but also yours, and yours, and yours; ours together.
There is something powerful and transforming about learning to pray in agreement with one another.
When I was in seminary, my roommate spent the summer in Zimbabwe. As a way of supporting her, I gathered some friends to pray for her weekly while she was away. We would meet for dinner and then pray for whatever was on our minds that day, thinking of what she might be doing at that point in her trip. Each time we gathered, someone would jot down some notes in a notebook about our prayers that day.
We had little contact with her while she was gone – an email or two over the several months – but that was about it. When she returned to seminary at the end of the summer, our group gathered one more time, and invited Janine to tell us about her trip. As she talked, she pulled out a journal she kept during the summer – and we pulled out our prayer notebook.
We could not believe, as we read the two side-by-side, how often our prayers were directed at exactly what she needed that day. There were very specific, concrete needs that came up through the summer, and we had prayed for them time and time again in ways we could have never dreamed.
In ways that I cannot explain, Janine and I and my other friends and colleagues were united by our prayers, our lives inexplicably woven together as we followed and prayed to Our Father.
The experience left us in awe – there is no other way to explain it. It was an encounter with the Holy. “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name!”
“Hallowed be thy name” simply means,you’re your name be holy, sacred among us.
It is difficult to talk of “holiness” in anything but negative terms in our society today. Some of us grew up with an image of a Holy God as an angry God, waiting to punish any unholy word or deed. Others of us think of holiness as a sort of moral code that we must live up to, usually related to how we dress or what we do with our free time or our bodies. We look askance at those who fail to live up to the code, while at the same time grumbling about those who act “holier than thou” by keeping the code too rigidly.
None of that is what the Bible means by “holiness.” In Scripture, holiness inspires wonder and awe. Think of Moses at the burning bush, or Isaiah in the Temple. Think of Mary receiving new from an angel. Such an encounter with the Holy leaves us breathless with wonder, our hearts overflowing with emotion beyond words.
Holiness catches us off guard because it comes in unexpected ways and places. It comes, in other words, as pure gift.
Bondi writes of the gift of God’s holiness that reaches out to us.
“God finds a way through,” she says. “For me, it was in the experience of beauty [that I encountered God’s holiness]; for others, it may be in something very different: in the joy of music, in the love of a pet, in an encounter with nature.”
Such a gift received reminds us that we are loved, and sparks within us a sense of gratitude. And so it is with the Holy – we feel thankfulness welling up within us, and we are compelled to respond to Holiness. This is not the sort of gift we can possess or contain, but the kind that must be shared for it to last, to grow.
Holiness therefore makes demands of us – it calls forth from within us a desire and an ability to share with others the holiness we have experienced. Martin Luther wrote in his Small Catechism: “It is true that God’s name is holy in itself, but we ask in [the Lord’s] prayer that it may also become holy in and among us.”
“Hallowed be your name,” we pray, and that means not just that God’s name would be honored but that it would be honored in and through us, by the way we live, the way we act, the way we speak. It is a prayer that we might receive the gift of holiness, and also share it with others.
For when God becomes holy in and among us…then the kingdom of God is coming! And that is where we pick up next week…