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August 27, 2017

“The Lord’s Prayer” Matthew 6:7-15

 

As we continue in Matthew’s gospel, chapters 5-7, we find Jesus teaching his followers how to pray. One of the most universally known prayers is the Lord’s Prayer. For Protestants and Catholics, it is at least a weekly ritual to repeat the Lord’s Prayer in worship, although we may say it differently. Even for those whose worship experiences are limited to weddings and funerals, they have often heard it read aloud. For me personally, this prayer is a profound and very real way of connecting with God and with others. I am reminded of that connection when I have had the privilege of serving communion to the homebound members of our church body. Some of them may have lost a bit of their memory

, and may not always know who I am, but as soon as I hold their hands and begin to pray the Lord’s Prayer out loud, I hear them join in. We are connected by this ancient prayer to each other, to God and to Christ Jesus. Unfortunately, when a prayer is repeated again and again, it often becomes rote, and loses its significance.

 

For example, at every Rotary meeting, we begin with the pledge of allegiance. I have to admit I sort of find myself going on auto pilot with this recitation while looking at the flag, as we always do them prior to the start of our meetings. I don’t always consider what I am pledging myself to, although I am considering that pledge and its meaning much more seriously than I did prior to November of last year…

 

Today’s gospel reading is about that deep, lasting connection through the vehicle of prayer, beginning with the Lord’s Prayer, which needs to be rescued from “roteness!”  You’ll notice this morning that I asked Paula to read 2 different versions of this passage, to wake us up as to the meaning of this prayer. Here Jesus gives us a wonderful blueprint for how to pray, followed by a lesson on forgiveness.

 

 

This prayer also appears in Luke’s gospel, although at a different time in Jesus’ story line. Here, Matthew places it in the midst of his sermon on the mount which we have been studying for some time now.  In this section, Jesus gives a direct and simple way to pray. The first  statement is about our relationship with God.  Now the version of prayer we pray regularly is closer to Matthew’s version rather than Luke’s, which shortens things a bit. In Matthew, Jesus begins-“Our Father”. The prayer is based in community rather than with the individual- Our Father, Give us, forgive us, lead us not- throughout the body of Jesus’ prayer. We find strength in Christian community, as this prayer urges. We are connected as Christ’s body, together.

 

So Jesus says, “Our Father.” Let’s focus on the word for father a bit. Pater, or father in Greek reminds us that we can have a trusting and loving relationship with the Creator of the universe. Identifying God as male can add some baggage to God, if one’s father was less than perfect. I understand that at the old 9:00 A.M. service, when they said the Lord’s Prayer together, they used the word “Creator,” instead of father or mother to steer clear of any parenting issues. Creator sounds a bit distant to me, however. Despite whatever your parental baggage may be (And mine is good, by the way!), you can hopefully check those bags at God’s door, for God is a consistently loving parent, who cherishes us. Scripture reminds us of this-2 Corinthians 6:17-18 says, “I will welcome you and be your (Mother or Father). You will be my sons and daughters, as surely as I am God.” The first part of this prayer establishes both our identity as children of God, as well as the depth of connection available to God through prayer.

 

Once our close relationship to God is established, we are reminded to revere, to keep sacred God’s name and our relationship.  Hallowed is God’s name-that is, -holy, set apart from all other things, revered. Keep in mind that for faithful Jewish people, the name of God as written in the Hebrew Scriptures is never to be uttered, due to the holiness of and reverence for God.

 Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams explains that this petition is meant to direct us to look upon God as holy, revered, and that we are not to somehow trivialize God’s name by making God a tool for our purposes, to “put other people down, or as some sort of magic to make ourselves feel safe…Understand what you are talking about when you are talking about God-This is serious, this is the most wonderful and frightening reality that we could imagine, even more wonderful and frightening than we can imagine.” The holy name of God should leave us in awe.

 

Next comes a petition for God to act to establish the kingdom on earth, the rule of God’s peace and justice that is longed for by all of God’s children. This kingdom is both the now and the not yet. In one sense, this petition is for the full establishment of God’s rule and Christ’s return at the end of times. On the other, it is about the present as well. We spoke about this at our Bible study last Tuesday. Do we ourselves establish the kingdom of God? Is it dependent solely upon our own actions, or does it depend solely upon the activity of God? The famous German theologian Karl Barth certainly believed that God alone can bring the kingdom to earth. Barth believed our task was to pray for it and wait for it. However, we as Christians are to be expressions of the kingdom and to follow the teachings of Christ, and Barth himself stood up to German nationalism and Nazism as it infected the German Christian church prior to World War II.  Therefore, although the kingdom is not dependent upon our actions, when we feed the poor, when we house the homeless, when we share love with others, when we are merciful, when we stand up and speak out for just causes, we provide glimpses of the kingdom which one day will be revealed in fullness upon Christ’s return. Theologian Donald Coogan said, “Wherever the bounds of beauty, truth, and goodness are advanced, there the kingdom comes.”  We see glimpses of the kingdom every day, and wait for its full reign in a day yet to come. This part of the prayer in effect says, “Let Your will be done in, through and by me, that I may become an effective sign of Your dawning Kingdom.”

 

The next petition is, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” I love Presbyterian Pastor John Ortberg’s take on this section of the prayer. He writes, “Many people think our job is to get our afterlife destination taken care of, then tread water till we all get ejected and God torches the place. But Jesus never told anybody-neither his disciples nor us- to pray, ‘Get me out of here so I can go up there!’ His prayer was, ‘Make up there come DOWN here.’ Make things down here run the way they do up there.” This petition is God’s invitation to join God in making things down here the way they are up in heaven. In light of all that has happened over the last couple of week with racism in America, we’ve been busy treading water on matters of race. We need to work on bringing heaven down when it comes to matters of race, praying and working for it ourselves.

 

The next three petitions (vv. 3-4) cry out for God to provide for our most basic biological, interpersonal, and spiritual needs. Jesus asks for daily bread, the most basic element of the meal. Bread was the consistent staple for food in the first century. If you remember Eugene Petersen’s translation, he wrote, “Keep us alive with three square meals.” When we say this part of the prayer, we acknowledge that we are not able ourselves to provide for our own needs. That is a difficult message, when we can go to the grocery store and walk down the bread isle to choose any one of a hundred options of bread. We might think of Safeway or Albertson’s or Market of Choice as our great provider. Although there is a convenience to buying our own bread, the bread really isn’t ours and didn’t come from us. The grain was tended by farmers, baked by bakers, driven to the store by drivers and put on the shelf by stockers. But none of them compares to the ultimate source of that bread- the God who established the dirt of the earth and created the grain, who provided water and sun so that it one day could be turned into bread. This petition reminds us God is our great provider, whom we depend upon for the basic necessities in life.

 

Then comes a request for mercy, for forgiveness from sin. “And forgive us our debts as we ALSO HAVE forgiven our debtors.” Notice we don’t quite say it as the scripture in Matthew states it. Instead, we say, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” I can remember as a child and teenager thinking to myself, “Well, God can forgive me while I kind of work on forgiving others. No rush to do that, though…”  Yet the original translation suggest the forgiving action to others HAS ALREADY TAKEN PLACE. This is a two way request- one is dependent upon the other. We are to seek forgiveness from God, all the while extending that same forgiveness to others. Jesus himself says in Luke’s gospel- “Forgive, for you have been forgiven.” (Luke 6:37) I would suggest that when you pray the Lord’s prayer, if there is someone in your heart whom you cannot forgive, then do not repeat this segment of the prayer until you mean it.

 

And consider how this section in the prayer relates to verses 14 and 15! Jesus states here that forgiveness can be conditional. If you have yet to forgive someone else and deal specifically with reconciling with that individual, Jesus says, then your Maker in heaven will not forgive you. Relationships with others are so foundational, so valuable to Jesus. Is there someone in this life against whom you have held a grudge, someone you have refused to forgive? Let me encourage you to lift that person up in prayer and forgive them when we sing the Lord’s Prayer together in just a bit. Holding onto wrongs of others and remembering them over and over does nothing for our spirit, nothing for our soul. 15th Century Italian Franciscan monk Francis of Paola wrote, “Pardon one another so that later you will not remember the injury. The remembering of an injury itself is a wrong; it adds to our anger, feeds our sin and hates what is good. It is a rusty arrow and poison for the soul.”

 

The last petition is a request for strength to persevere in this confident trust in God in times of temptation-“Lead us not into temptation.” Jesus himself undergoes temptations and trials, and knows disciples will get their share as well. God may test the faith of us believers, as God did Abraham, Job, the Israelites in the wilderness, and Jesus. Matthew 4:1 reads, “Then Jesus was led up BY THE SPIRIT into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” The request is for strength in those times of testing, as well as for deliverance from them. On the other hand, there is contradiction in scripture on this issue. James 1:13-14 says, “Let no one say when he or she is tempted,’ I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and God tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he or she is lured and enticed by their own desires.” So another way to interpret this section is, “God to grant us the strength to resist temptations which are connected to our desires.

 

Both Matthew’s version of the prayer, and some ancient manuscripts in Luke then include, “but deliver us from evil.” What is this section about? It is connected to the request to be able to resist temptation. Evil in this sense is both a personified evil as well as evil deeds done by us and around us. You can think of it in this way- Temptation can be a pit into which we are drawn into by evil influence. Evil has power and dominates the pit. So this request is to be able to resist temptation, and to be delivered from the pit and its evil influence upon our lives.

You will notice that something is missing in both this version of the Lord’s Prayer as well as the one found in Luke chapter 11.  "For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever." This last bit of the Lord’s Prayer is technically termed a doxology- a sentence of praising God- literally in Greek “doxa-glory logy- words”. In scripture, you can find practice of concluding prayers with a short, hymn-like verse which exalts the glory of God. An example similar to the doxology in question is found in David's prayer located in 1 Chronicles 29:10-13 of the Old Testament. In verse 13 David ends his prayer-“Now our God, we give you thanks, and praise Your glorious name.” It was a common practice to end prayers with a saying of praise to God.

In the early Church, the Christians living in the eastern half of the Roman Empire added the doxology to the Gospel text of this section of Matthew and recited the prayer in this way during worship. Evidence of this practice is also found in the "Didache" (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), a first century manual of morals, worship and doctrine of the Church. Also, when copying the Scriptures, Greek scribes sometimes appended the doxology onto the original Gospel text of the Lord’s Prayer. However, most texts today would omit this inclusion, relegate it to a footnote, or note that it was a later addition to the Gospel. So if you are keeping score as to who is closest to original scripture when it comes to reciting this prayer, it is Catholics 1, Protestants 0. 

Today Jesus teaches us of the importance of prayer, and how, in particular the Lord’s Prayer connects us so profoundly to God and to each other. He also reminds us of the importance of community in relationships, and that through the vehicle of forgiveness, we can maintain those relationships and keep them healthy.  To help rescue this prayer from “roteness” let me suggest you pray it on a day other than a Sunday. Use it at the end of your prayer time or just pray it at some point during your day. May God be with us, as we seek to follow Jesus’ teachings in our Christian journeys of faith- to bless others and strengthen our souls. Alleluia! Amen.

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