Monday, February 23, 2015

"Pray in This Way" - A Lenten Exploration of the Lord's Prayer

For the season of Lent we will be focusing on the Lord's Prayer.  We continue with the Introduction.

Lord’s Prayer – Our Father in Heaven

Today we begin a series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer – Newsletter will have an article that will talk about the background of the prayer.  So dive right with what Luther calls the introduction – Our Father in Heaven.
In many ways this opening is like the “salutation” of a regular letter – “Dear John” or “Dear Mary.”  These words open the prayer but they also set the tone for all this is to follow.  And especially those first two words – Our Father – they are powerful words that are like a foundation upon which the rest of the prayer is built.  It is those two words that I would like to focus on this morning, we’ll leave the 2nd part of that 1st line – the in heaven part for when we consider the 2nd petition since they are related.  So…
Our Father – Who’s Father?  OUR Father.  Right off the bat with the very first two words we are making an extremely important and profound statement of faith.  The God whom we worship – the God who is the object of our prayers is not just MY God, not just MY Father – or His or Her God or Father – The God whom we worship is OUR Father.  We live in a society that more and more tends to see faith and religion and prayer as private or personal.  More and more of us are claiming our Christianity to be a completely personal or private matter.  And as a result more and more of us have come to reject the importance of the community of Christ, the church.  Who needs it if my entire religious life is just me and Jesus or me and God.  Why do I need the institution of the church?  Why do I need any one else?  I can just go up on a mountain, or out in nature or on a golf course and pray to God by myself, right?
No.  For with these two little words that stands at the beginning of this prayer – OUR Father – Jesus points us in a completely different direction.  With these words Jesus not only rejects the idea that our faith is totally and completely a private matter but Jesus challenges us to see ourselves, our faith and our prayer life in the context of the community of faith.  We cannot be Christians all by ourselves – we are a part of a community and we need each other.  We are all a part of the Body of Christ, to use an image from Paul, and we are linked together – we are interconnected with each other.  Right away this prayer reminds us that we are an important part of a community and everything that follows in this prayer is based on this understanding of faith in the context of community.  The Lord’s Prayer is not an I prayer – it is a WE prayer.  It is not a prayer FOR ME – but a prayer FOR US.  If we come before God in true prayer we do not simply come before the God who is our own private God, but before the God who is the God of us all. 
This then brings us to the next word – FATHER / OUR FATHER.  The use of the word FATHER I think for some of us may feel a little formal, patriarchal or even distant.  Some folks have expressed that they feel pushed away from this opening for many of these reasons.  So let’s take a minute and explore this 2nd word a bit.
As you all know the Gospels and actually all of the New Testament was written in Greek.  But Jesus did not speak Greek.  His language was Aramaic, which is related to Hebrew. In the Gospel accounts then all of Jesus’ words - his teachings, parables, prayers and so on - have been translated from Aramaic into Greek by the Gospel writers.  And then, in order for us to be able to read them, these words have been further translated into English. So when Jesus originally gave this prayer to his disciples the Aramaic word that stands behind our formal English word “Father” is the word ABBA.  And this word literally means “Daddy” or “Papa.”  One of the first words that an infant would have learned to speak would have been either Abba (daddy) or Imma (mommy).  And these words were reserved for the closest and most intimate of family relationships.  No one in the 1st century would have dared to use the word ABBA to refer to God, but Jesus did.  And more than that, Jesus even urges his followers to use the word too.  Jesus is suggesting a new way of understanding of the relationship between God and God’s children.  No longer are we to be to feel separated or distant from God the Father; no longer are we to be intimidated or afraid of the eternal Patriarch who sits in judgment.  Now, in Jesus, God has initiated a new relationship with us that is intimate, that is close, caring, understanding and founded upon Grace.
To better understand how Jesus himself understands his own relationship with God the Father and how Jesus understands his use of the word ABBA in this context, let’s look for a moment at the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  There, the overwhelming love of the Father leads him to behave in some very un-patriarchal ways.
1.                     He gives in to the request of the son to divide up his estate, before he is even dead. 
2.                     Once the son has gone off on his own, he doesn’t write him off, but rather continues to wait for him in hopeful expectation.
3.                     When the Father finally sees the wayward son afar off he RUNS to greet him because he cannot contain his joy.
4.                     The son had practiced up a nice little speech, but the Father doesn’t even let him get out much of it before interrupting him with forgiveness and welcome.
5.                     The son does not have to earn his way back into his Father’s favor, he is restored completely without hesitation.
6.                     And to celebrate the Father throws a big, expensive party!
Scandalous would have been how this story would have been received by those in the 1st century who heard the story the same time.  Incredible behavior on the part of the Father – unheard of – improper.
But this is Grace unbounded!  Grace and love so vast and deep that it cannot be contained or comprehended.  When we say those words – Our Father – we are affirming all of that.  God is OUR ABBA – the one whose love for us knows no bounds.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

"Pray in This Way" - A Lenten Exploration of the Lord's Prayer

For the season of Lent we will be focusing on the Lord's Prayer.  We begin with this general introduction to the Lord's Prayer:

Pray Then in This Way
Beginning in Lent we will begin our 40-day pilgrimage with a focus on the Lord’s Prayer.  This wonderful prayer is one which is familiar to all Christians and which has been a regular part of Christian worship since the early church.  It is so familiar that it runs the danger of becoming too familiar.  In other words, it is easy for something like this beautiful prayer which we recite over and over to become so familiar that it looses it’s edge and bite.  For this prayer has an edge.  Though it is based on the Psalm tradition of the Old Testament it nevertheless is, in many ways, a very radical prayer that lifts up God’s unexpected priority for God’s children and calls for a equally radical response from those who prayer this prayer.
The first issue which this prayer lifts up, however, is that this prayer places prayer itself at the center of Christian life and discipleship. And it does provide a model for how we might structure our own prayers.  The prayer is in two parts with an introduction and a closing doxology:
Introduction: Our Father in Heaven…
Part I – Acknowledging God: 1. Hallowed (Holy) be your name;
                        2. Your Kingdom come;
                        3. Your will be done, on earth as in heaven;
Part II – Petitions for God’s involvement in human life:
                        4. Give us today our daily bread;
                        5. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us;
                        6. Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
Closing Doxology: For the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory are yours, now
and forever.  Amen.

The prayer that Jesus sets out is a two-part prayer that begins with acknowledging the Jewish tradition of respecting the sacred name of God, but at the same time is very personal.  The Greek for Father is actually the familiar term Abba that should be translated more accurately as Daddy or Papa.  It is an intimate and familiar word.  This is important because too often we think of God as remote and far away; or we think of God as an angry judge ready to condemn and turn his back on us if we don’t measure up.  No, our Father in heaven is our Daddy, Papa who loves us unconditionally (think of the Father in the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” Luke 15).  I would also add that Jesus’ use of the male familiar term does not assign a gender to God.  Jesus related to God as father.  The God includes both father and mother; male and female.  And if the male familiar term Father, Daddy, Papa does not work for you then it would be completely consistent with this prayer to substitute the female words Mother, Mommy, Mama.  The prayer is, itself, exceptionally inclusive and affirming.

This then brings us to the first part, the petitions that acknowledge who we understand God to be.  And they build on each other.  God is the God whose very name is Holy and we pray that we would be always aware of God’s holy name so that we would not bring dishonor or blasphemy upon God’s name.  This happens a lot.  For whenever we attach God’s name to our own particular cause or viewpoint or prejudice we are dishonoring God’s name.  For the God whose name is Holy is also the God who brings the Kingdom into our midst, and we then are citizens of this Kingdom of God.  And the will of God that will be accomplished in heaven and on earth are none other than the priorities of the Kingdom itself.

And what are the priorities of the Kingdom?  That takes us to part two and first and foremost: That people are cared for and fed.  That hunger is eradicated. There is no excuse for Christians to ignore the issues of hunger in our world.  WE spend lots of money and emotional energy fighting for all kinds of superficial “religious” issues, but consistently too many Christians ignore the one issue that was priority number one for Jesus himself: Hunger.  Then we pray for forgiveness for ourselves, our communities and by so doing we ask for insight, grace and love to be able to reach out to others with care and forgiveness.  Lastly part two ends with an acknowledgement of the reality of evil and asks for God’s deliverance.  Finally we close the prayer with a doxology that was added by the early church in the 3rd century.

This prayer should make us uncomfortable.  This prayer should challenge us.  It is too easy for Christians to become complacent and self-centered.  This prayer forces us to look beyond our own self-interest and the pet issues that are dear to us and to see that we are called to a much bigger calling.  Hunger on the other side of the world IS our issue. This prayer condemns all suffering, injustice, hate, and arrogance.  In this prayer we are called to commit ourselves to the vision of the Kingdom of God that Jesus represents.  May we take this opportunity to reassess our values and our way of living our discipleship this Lent as we travel towards the cross of Jesus, accompanied by the Lord’s Prayer.  Amen.