Sermon for July 24, 2022
Last Sunday, we heard Jesus telling worried and distracted Martha that her sister, Mary, had chosen “the better part” by sitting and listening to Jesus rather than serving an impressive meal (Luke 10:42). Today, we find Jesus living out his own advice and spending time with his Father in prayer – something he does often in the Gospel stories. Well, if Jesus needs to carve out time to stay in touch with his heavenly Parent, we probably need that, too. In fact, one of Jesus’ followers gets this and asks him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). And Jesus’ response is what became the Lord’s Prayer.
Of course, we hear that as referring to a formal, set prayer we’re supposed to offer. In our Episcopal tradition, the Church has included that prayer in just about every act of public worship. And it’s key for many of us individually, too – starting our mornings, or ending our nights, or maybe both.
I wonder, though, if Jesus’ answer to that disciple might have been as much about how to pray as it was about what to pray. How are we supposed to engage the eternal sovereign of the universe? What’s God looking for? I think that may have been what Jesus had in mind.
So … how should we pray? Well, I thought I’d ask God directly and see what comes from that. For me, the best medium is writing, so I wrote God a letter. Here goes.
It’s been a while since I’ve written. I’m sorry about that – not in the sense of regretting a sin but in the sense of regretting that I haven’t made the time. I always feel better when I set aside time with you, but I wonder how it makes you feel, as the heavenly parent. In my own life, I feel blessed when my kids want to talk to me. It says that, despite everything, our relationship is still there. Does it work that way for you, too?
Anyway, you taught us to pray using this lesson we call the Lord’s Prayer. It is a comfort, and I’m grateful for it. When I don’t know what else to say to you, those words fall into place. At the same time, I have to admit that I often don’t think much about what I’m saying as those words fall into place. So, let’s see what happens if I do.
Jesus told us to begin by naming you as “Father” (Luke 11:2). Honestly, I don’t know that “father” is how I see you. I don’t think of you in terms of gender, but that’s not the point. Instead, I think “father” means that you want me to remember that you’re not just some abstract cosmic force; you’re my parent in the best sense – the creator and authority figure, yes, but also the one who always shows up and listens. You care about what I care about simply because I care about it. How crazy is that? And, like a good mom or dad, you also move me forward, helping me see that whatever I’m getting wrapped up in is not the ultimate reality. Maybe that’s why some of the people writing the Gospels remembered Jesus adding the words “in heaven” to that opening address of “Father.” Our reality isn’t the scope of your reality, and that’s good to keep in mind. But the downside is that your heavenly position can make us forget that you’re with us right here, right now, too.
Then there’s that line, “Hallowed be your name” (Luke 11:2). With that, I think Jesus ask us to remember there’s a big difference between you and my own parents, even at their very best. When something is “hallowed,” it means that thing is set apart as holy, signifying a reality that’s eternal and divine. But we aren’t the ones that make something hallowed. Like the battlefield at Gettysburg, you are hallowed not by any act or remembrance that we can offer but because of the offering you make. Like the soldiers on that battlefield, you give yourself to us and for us; and that self-giving nature ironically sets you apart from us, makes you holy. In your gifts to us of life and love, you pour yourself out, the living sacrifice you ask us to emulate. So, even though you’re there with us in every experience, you’re also set apart from our experience, always reminding us that your love is just that much more than we can comprehend.
Then you ask us to pray, “Your kingdom come” (Luke 11:2). Now, why would you want us to ask for what you already intend to do? Maybe because prayer isn’t about getting you to do something; it’s about getting us on the same page with what you’re already doing. Now, I’ll admit that when I say, “Your kingdom come,” there’s a part of me that’s really saying, “Come on, Lord, bring on the big ending.” There is so much to lament, so much to grieve in this world you’ve given us … and the thought of you swooping in to set the world to rights is pretty darned attractive. But praying for your kingdom to come reminds me that your reign and rule over our experience happens on your timeline, not mine. And it reminds me that we humans aren’t just props on your cosmic set. We’re your kids, people you’re always forming more and more into your image and likeness. And the way we grow into who you’ve made us to be is by being the change you’re seeking in the world now.
OK. The next line is, “Give us each day our daily bread” (Luke 11:3). This one may be the hardest one to pray without my fingers crossed. Because, if I’m honest, I want a lot more than my daily bread. I want plenty of bread, and I want it for a long time. Like the people of Israel, I don’t want to have to trust that the manna you provide today will be there tomorrow; I want to gather up a bunch of it right now so I can rest easy in the future. But, of course, this petition isn’t about bread. It’s about trust. Well then, sure, God, I can get on board asking for help with that, because trust is something I definitely need. So, give us what we need for today … and help us take a breath, knowing that you’ll come through tomorrow, too.
Well, God, then we come to the daily work of forgiveness, and there’s a lot in these lines of your prayer. If you’re telling me to ask for forgiveness every day, that means you know I’m going to turn away from you every day. But still, you’re there. And still, you want to have this conversation. On one level, that’s shocking: Why haven’t you written us off long ago? But on another level, that’s parenting: You know your kids will mess up, but you want to have the relationship anyway. So, you ask us to come back to you, even though we’re sure to turn away again.
But that’s not all. There’s a powerful lesson here about how we deal with each other, too. Your grace is free, but it’s no free ride. To the same extent that you forgive us, you expect us to forgive each other. And it’s not just forgiveness in the abstract you’re asking for. You want us to “forgive everyone indebted to us” (Luke 11:4) – which says to me that forgiveness is going to cost me something. Come to think of it, that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, freeing us from our sin certainly cost you something.
And finally, we come to this: “Do not bring us to the time of trial” (Luke 11:4). That seems weird: Why would we think our loving parent might be the one bringing us into trial? Well, some of the people recording these stories of Jesus expanded that line to say, “Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.”1 OK, that gives the request some context. But it’s hard for us postmodern folks to take that seriously. We’re much too sophisticated to think there’s an evil overlord out there somewhere, stirring up harm for your children. But then again … just follow the news for a few days: people shooting children in schools, people shooting each other on the streets, nations invading other nations without even the pretext of justification, comfortable people knowing other folks suffer but not really doing much to change it. Well, we may not be threatened by a red devil with horns and a pitchfork, but we are certainly threatened by evil that takes us “where [we] do not wish to go” (John 21:20). So maybe we need to pray such an archaic prayer simply to remember that there are indeed spiritual forces out there that do not wish us well, and that we’d be smart to turn to you instead.
Well, God, I’ve got to wind up this letter now. As always, it’s time to get on to the next thing. But thank you for the chance to remember the craziest truth of them all – that you’re asking me to reach out more. I should be the one appealing for an audience with you … but it turns out, you’re already there, waiting. All I’ve got to do is knock – or sit down and write a letter.
1. See Matthew 6:13. The NRSV notes that this addition also appears in some ancient manuscripts of Luke.