January 2, 2011

Matthew 6:9–13 & Genesis 1:26-27

“Our Father…”

The first of ten sermons exploring the rich and multifaceted Lord’s Prayer

Rev. Allen V. Harris

Franklin Circle Christian Church

Podcast:  January 2, 2011 Sermon “Our Father…”

I’ve been wanting to do a sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer for many years, but I knew that to do so in the manner in which I truly wanted and you truly deserved – intentionally, unrushed, without distractions – would take a very special time period in the life of the church and in my own life.  I’ve been watching and waiting for just such a chunk of time to arrive, and it did in Epiphany 2011, with this luxuriously long winter bridge between Advent and Lent.  And what a perfect time to explore more deeply what the early church leader, Tertullian, called “a brief summary of the whole gospel.” (1)

And so, I’ve set the next ten Sundays as a careful, and what I hope will be an inspirational and intriguing, series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer.  I’ve invited the music staff and the New Worship Initiative Team to help me in this endeavor, bringing their creative energies to this task.  One of my dear friends, Marc Blakesley from Minneapolis, Minnesota, will be helping us in February to not be led into temptation!

Let’s begin.  The context, meaning the “literary environment,” of the Prayer of Our Savior is critically important.  It is offered in the book of Matthew in the midst of what we call “The Sermon On The Mount,” the single largest collection of Jesus’ teaching and sayings in the Bible.  And within this sermon it is part of a section on personal piety, calling us to a higher level of righteousness, doing “justice” to our religious beliefs and deeds.(2)

Here Jesus takes three very common religious practices – charitable giving, praying, and fasting – and, assuming everyone does all three as they were common community practices for people of faith, Jesus reminds us that it is not simply in doing the right rituals, but in how they are done, the motivations behind and deep within them, that truly matters to God.  (3)

Matthew understands that Jesus, while not dismissing public or corporate prayer, is focused here on private prayer.  He chastises those who make a show of their private prayers in public, those he calls “hypocrites,” and encourage us all to direct our prayers to God alone.  Jesus offers this prayer as a model, an example, a prototype for how private prayers directed to God might best be shaped.  In Luke’s gospel (Chapter 11) the recitation of this prayer, albeit in a shorter version, comes at the behest of the disciples, when, having witnessed Jesus deep in prayer, they ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray,” although they do oddly add, “as John taught his disciples.”  Always competing, those disciples!

Douglas Hare, professor emeritus at Pittsburg Theological Seminary, notes that, “The most noticeable characteristic of the Lord’s Prayer is its Jewishness.  Almost every phrase has its parallel in Jewish literature.  Conspicuously missing are distinctively Christian elements, such as a prayer for the return of Jesus the Messiah or a supplication for Christ’s church.  There is not even an attachment ‘In Jesus’ name we pray.’” (4)  I take this to mean that from the beginning, this prayer was meant to be a prayer “for all peoples.” (ref. Isaiah 56:7b-8).

Russell Pregeant, professor and chaplain at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts, reminds us that this prayer has a thoroughly eschatological tone to it, meaning that it hearkens to the last days, the days beyond the ones in which we inhabit this earth, while still grounding ourselves in the spiritual needs for today. (5)  Thus, it is a prayer that understands that we need spiritual sustenance right now, and for “that great come and get it day!”  Our concerns are both temporal and eternal.

So, in the timeless words of Maria Von Trapp, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”

“Our Father…”  Now, before you panic, I promise not to take every single word of the Lord’s Prayer and make it an entire sermon!  Many weeks it will be full phrases.  But this week, to begin our journey, we need to look most thoughtfully at how Jesus began his prayer, and thus how we begin our prayers.  How we address God says more about our prayer than almost anything we will say in it.

Let’s begin with the word “Our.”  In the original Greek, this would not have been the first word, as it would read “Pater Hemon” with “Pater” being the word for “father” in Greek as well as in the more familiar Latin.  But in English, we read, “Our Father.”

“Our,” signifying from the very start that while this is a private, personal prayer that is being modeled, the One to whom it is directed is in no way, shape, form, or title to be considered our personal or private God.  Author and teacher William J. Carl says that this “immediately places us in the middle of the whole human family, whether we like it or not.” (6)  We are invited from the very beginning to get outside of ourselves, just a bit, and remember that though we have only one God, God has an inestimable number of children, and almost all of them come to their creator with concerns, requests, joys, sorrows, and questions.

But even the word “Our” nonetheless has its limitations.  My partner, Craig, is very good about reminding me after he has heard me pray in public that the word “our,” while it certainly moves us out of the purely personal realm of prayer, still implies we are part of the “in” crowd.  Some folks hear the word “our” and contrast it to “their:”  “Our God” vs. “Their God.”  We never want to wander into the wilderness of assuming the One who is sovereign of the entire universe is the deity of just one peoples, just one group, just one slice of humanity.  Thus, calling out to “our” God must at the very same time both move us beyond our private religious devotions while at the same time not restrict us to a tribal or possessive understanding of the divine

And then Jesus addressed his prayer to his and our “Father.”  It must have been startling, if not unnerving, for Jesus to start off his prayer like this. He did it consistently, as evidenced throughout the gospels.  This way of addressing God is completely familiar now, but at that time it would have sounded irreverent and entirely too familiar.  No other religious traditions that we know of from that time period had any similar such references to their deities.  Even for those of Jesus’ own faith God was Creator of all that was, is, and will be; who am I to call this one “Father?”

You’ll remember that when Moses, great patriarch of the Hebrew Scriptures, when he asked God how to address the divinity, the reply came, “I am who I am.”  Hardly a first name, and definitely not personal!  Yet Jesus starts his model prayer with this tender, warm salutation by simply saying, “Father.”  The Aramaic is Abba.  In Arabic, it’s Yabba and the only possible direct English translation is “Daddy.”  Jesus has all of us starting off our prayer with this very intimate word, which in essence means, “Hey Dad, can we talk?”(7)  And I happen to know some of you take Jesus’ invitation at face value!  Professor Praegent wisely says that this approach to God as a father reminds Jesus’ followers that because they can know God as one who already knows their needs and who cares for them, “they can pray in confident simplicity with no need of elaborate incantations or manipulative devises.” (8)

One might ask, doesn’t this informal, almost cozy term minimize God’s majesty and power?  William Carl insists, not at all!  All Jesus did was to make the majesty and power of God more approachable. (9)  I like that.  Like a good father, God is one who conveys both authority and compassion.  Like a good father, God is one who is both strong enough to protect his children from threats from beyond the household but who is also gentle enough to caress a newborn baby’s head.  Like a good father, God is one that we must respect and honor when such an approach is appropriate, and one who we can hug and who can receive our tears when we need to cry.

I love the fact that Jesus modeled such a uniquely and powerfully intimate relationship with God.  It’s one of the reasons I follow Jesus, quite frankly.  Even so, I have a slightly different perspective on God as “Our father,” and it comes not necessarily from some principled stance I feel I must take out of my academic or pastoral experience.  It comes entirely from my own personal and private experience.

I want to offer you a poem I wrote when I was 19 years old and a student at college at Phillips University.  The background to this poem is that when I was born, my father, a rancher and a career military man, had died of cancer of the throat a few months prior to my birth.  While I had a few strong men in my life as a child – cub scout leaders, coaches, pastors, teachers – I was primarily raised by my mother, a single working mother with two young children in the house; by my grandmother, a solid and dour German boarding house matron who moved in with us when I was in kindergarten; and by my older sister, who was from my mother’s first marriage and 21 years older than me, and a teacher.

I wrote this poem as an honest expression of my experience with God as a child and young teen.

Who Is God

by Allen Vernon Harris

Who are you God?

Who are you God?

Our Father, which art in heaven?

I’m sorry, I can’t relate to

that – Does not compute –

What the hell is a father?

Our Father, which art in heaven.

Why can’t I picture that?

The strong arms,

The picturesque beard,

The fatherly image…

I never had one,

A father, that is.

– a picture on the wall,

– war medals in a book,

Is that all you are God?

Oh, but I know you God –

I do know you.

You’ve held me close to your bosom

on cold winter nights.

You’ve rocked me to sleep.

You sang lullabies as I sucked

at your breast.

I know you God.

The gentle caress –

The wipe of a tear –

The kiss of a hurt –

The break,

The wake of a school day morn –

I know you God.

The slap of a hand at the cookie jar –

The hum of a long-lost tune,

and the smell of chili on a Saturday noon –

The squeak of an ironing board –

That’s who you are.

Hold me, God.

I need you.

I need to know who you are.

I need to relate.

Oh Mother God,

I know you.

I want to conclude this first sermon on this most amazing model for prayer we call “The Lord’s Prayer” on this note.  Jesus gave us a remarkable gift when he said, “Pray then in this way…”  His gift of this pattern of prayer was meant to be a stepping off point, a beginning to prayer.  There is no suggestion that it was meant to limit, obstruct, or restrict our prayer life, but to open it up.  Thus, for those of us who can and do find the idea of the divine as a majestic and yet intimate father a blessing, then we are invited to begin our prayers, “Our Father…”  But for those of us who do not, the invitation is still open: How do you see the divine source of life, who created all that is, including you, and who is both magnificent beyond our human understanding and as intimate as our own breath?  For me, that means I might just begin my prayers, “Our Mother…”

Invite God into your prayer life in such a way as to allow that wonderful paradox, that delightful absurdity, that amazing illogicality which is at the heart, which is the essence, of this God whom Jesus knew intimately, and then pray.  Pray, pray, pray.

Amen.

(1) via William J. Carl III The Lord’s Prayer For Today (Louisville, John Knox Press, 2006) , p. 4

(2) Russell Pregeant, Matthew: Chalice Commentary for Today (St. Louis, Chalice Press, 2004), p. 51

(3) Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation: A Bible commentary For Teaching And Preaching, (Louisville, John Knox Press, 1993),P p. 63

(4) Hare, p. 66

(5) Pregeant, pp. 51-52

(6) Carl, p. 14

(7) Carl, p. 11

(8) Pregeant, p. 51

(9) Carl, p. 11

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