July 28, 2019
The Sixth Sunday after Trinity
(Colossians 2:12-14; Luke 11:1-13)
If we really listen to what we are saying in the Lord's Prayer, we will no longer be able to "recite" it.
Let’s take a step back in time. The time is 1957. The place is Southside Elementary School. The scene is Miss Steele's second grade classroom. The school day is just beginning and students are putting away their books, settling into their desks, and whispering the latest news to nearby classmates. Talking is permitted until the tardy bell rings. The first bell signals that students can enter the building and make their way to the classrooms. The second bell means that you had better be in your desk and ready for prime time.
But first there is THE VOICE. THE VOICE comes to us over the intercom. THE VOICE belongs to the school principal, known only by name and never by sight (except by the unfortunate rule-breakers). It is THE VOICE that begins the daily routine. First, we stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, hand over heart, posture erect, facing the classroom flag. No sooner has "with liberty and justice for all" ceased its echo than we each would bow our head and recite in unison the Lord's Prayer. No one asks to leave the room; no one dares raise any objection; no one thinks twice about the appropriateness of this exercise.
Such was the culture in those latent days of innocence, especially in the Protestant South. The recitation of the Lord's Prayer was certainly not meant to offend anyone -- for whom could it have offended? Most of the people were either Baptist or Methodist with a few Presbyterians and Episcopalians thrown in for variety. There was a large Catholic church in our town, but no one recalls knowing any Catholics. Jews were some historic people of the Old Testament, and one never even heard of Muslims. Since it was presumed that everyone was a Christian, who was there to object to the Lord's Prayer? Thus our secular educational experience and sectarian church experience was of one cloth -- a seamless cross-reference and mutual reinforcement.
What may arguably have been appropriate in an earlier era can just as arguably be seen as insensitively inappropriate today. The point here, however, is not to pick a fight with the tar baby of prayer in schools, but to evoke a memory of how many of us, early in our learning experience, encountered the Lord's Prayer.
In that earlier era, the Lord's Prayer, whether recited at school or at church, was for me just that -- a recitation -- a memorized script mumbled forth on cue. No thought as to its meaning, no reflection on its implication for my life, just a recitation. Its words were as familiar to all of us as those of the Pledge of Allegiance, but our understanding of it no more profound than our understanding, of liberty and justice for all, while knowing that the south was still unjustifiably segregated.
For many in the Boomer generation, this scenario is extremely familiar. Yet there are other ways to experience the Lord's Prayer. One is through the liturgy of worship. The scene goes something like this: Following an intercession for all of those present, the pastor says, " Instructed by the words of sacred Scripture and following the tradition of holy Church from of old, we now say:" and all of the congregants intone the words of the Lord's Prayer. Yet, even here, the prayer often comes forth as a memorized recitation rather than an expression of the heart. The only point of reflection is whether to recite the phrase "forgive us our debts," "forgive us our trespasses," or "forgive us our sins." I have heard of congregations where each phrase had its advocates and where the public recitation of the prayer was a theological battlefield as one group would try to "out-pray" the other. These competing theologies quickly gave way, however, to the desire by all not to be led into temptation.
Another way to encounter the Lord's Prayer is through a Bible study class. Here the Lord's Prayer becomes an object to be examined rather than a recitation to be memorized. In this setting one might learn of the intimate character of the term Abba, Father; the meaning of that strange word, "hallowed"; and the sorts of evil from which one ought to pray for deliverance. However it may have been learned, the truth remains that for many the prayer has been sent into semiretirement. It is no longer a liturgical component for worship, no longer an object of study, no longer a prayer with any meaningful relevance. Parents still insist that their children learn the prayer, but this is more out of cultural expediency than religious necessity -- more to prevent the embarrassment of ignorance, than to celebrate an element of faith. Hence why you have seen me add the responsorial prayers to the Mass, and the rosary and novenas to prior to the Mass over the years, all to help us to pray more.
Maybe it is time that the Lord's Prayer is dusted off and looked at again. With an attitude more seasoned; with eyes that have seen too much, yet want to see more; with a heart more tender and less rational, let's sit once again among these ancient words to hear them anew and afresh. In doing so, possibly something akin to what theologian Len Sweet would call a "faith-quake" will be experienced. The realization may come that in this prayer we had been standing on holy ground and did not have the good sense to remove our sandals. But more significantly, we might realize that the Lord's Prayer is a prayer we are not yet ready to pray.
In his book, The Lord and His Prayer, N.T. Wright points out that even though the word Abba is a word of intimacy, the real import of the idea of God as Father is to be found in an earlier reference. "The first occurrence in the Hebrew Bible of the idea of God as the Father comes when Moses marches in boldly to stand before Pharaoh, and says: "Thus says the Lord: Israel is my son, my firstborn. I said to you: Let my son go, that he may serve me.' (Exodus 4:22-23). For Israel to think of God as "Father,' then, was to hold on to the hope of liberty.... The very first words of the Lord's Prayer, therefore ... contains within it not just intimacy, but revolution."
To pray this prayer, therefore, indicates a desire to be set free from those ideas, those habits, and those attitudes that seek to hold us captive. The question is, "Are we at all certain that we want to be set free?" Our manner of behavior oftentimes belies our claim to faith. And having become comfortable in that behavior, seldom do we really want to undergo the discomfort associated with change.
I had to learn this. I allowed myself to fall out of the habit of daily structured prayer and lectio divina after moving here to California. I found my peace and spirituality slip away. I had to get back to my hour of prayer each morning, and evening breviary prayers to feel close my Lord again. Many say that our daily routine may not leave room for those things that nourish the soul, yet there is no willingness to make the hard choices that would be required to find space in our schedule for spiritual disciplines. We know that we are impatient, unforgiving, sarcastic or inattentive to those we love and who love us, and we really don't like being that way. But given the choice between exerting the energy to change or continuing to hurt others by our attitude, we too often choose the well-worn path of sameness. Or, to use Wright's analogy, we prefer to slave away in the house of the Pharaoh rather than embrace the implications of calling God "Father."
In short, we may need to be freed from our captivity to culture and comfort, but the haunting question is whether we want to be set free. If praying the Lord's Prayer -- if calling God "Father" -- is to acknowledge his liberating power and to confess our desire to participate in that liberating experience, then, maybe, the Lord's Prayer is a prayer that cannot yet be prayed.
In a past issue of Sojourners magazine, Stanley Hauerwas gives attention to another of the phrases in this prayer. Speaking of the petition, "Thy kingdom come," he reminds us that unlike earthly kingdoms with borders and boundaries, checkpoints and crossing guards, God's kingdom knows no boundaries.
Nationality? -- It doesn't matter.
Ethnicity? -- It doesn't matter.
Language? -- It doesn't matter.
Skin color? -- It doesn't matter.
Sexuality? -- It doesn’t matter.
Political affiliation? -- It doesn't matter.
Economic status? -- It doesn't matter.
Liberal? Conservative? -- It doesn't matter.
Theological position? -- It doesn't matter.
If this prayer is to be believed, Christians are bound by cords of grace to all persons who profess faith in Jesus as the Christ, for in God's kingdom there are no boundaries.
Now while all of this may theoretically sound like an "Amen" line, on a practical level the "deacon's bench" falls strangely silent. Society and experience have conditioned us to see the one who is our theological or political mirror image more as an enemy than a kingdom-mate. It is much easier and, quite frankly, much more self-justifying to swashbuckle against a theological nemesis than it is to embrace the person as a brother or sister in the kingdom of God. After all, we have our honor to protect and the integrity of the faith to defend. Our theological heritage, no less than our pride, insists that there be no concourse between ourselves and those whose Christian beliefs do not conform to our own.
Yet, along comes this prayer with the petition for the kingdom of God to come on earth -- a boundless and boundaryless kingdom to be established, not just on terra firma (dry ground), but in our own backyard, no less. A kingdom in which there are no opposing camps. A kingdom in which those differences that would divide are less important than the One whose kingdom it is. A kingdom where disarmament is a prerequisite for entrance. And we are supposed to seriously pray for this? Are we ready for a truce? Are we ready to embrace that one whose differences we find objectionable? Are we really ready to pray this prayer?
There's another reason why one might find this prayer difficult to pray, and that reason is bound up in the phrase, "Give us each day our daily bread." The problem here is twofold. First, "bread" speaks of basic necessity, the bare minimum one needs in order to survive. Implied in this petition is a satisfaction with the mere basics of life, but, if truth be told, our satisfaction requires more than just bread. Many of us have worked hard to surround ourselves with creature comforts -- nice home, nice cars, recreational toys, lines of credit - okay, well some of us, but you see my point. Now while all of this does not comprise the sum total of happiness, it is nevertheless true that we have developed a rather strong attachment to these symbols of success. The simple lifestyle may be okay for some folks, but most Christians are just not there yet. So how does one pray for "daily bread" when what is really wanted is bread pudding?
But secondly, how does one pray for one's own daily bread when there are so many others with no bread? N.T. Wright is correct when he says, "It is impossible truly to pray for our daily bread, or for tomorrow's bread today, without being horribly aware of the millions who didn't have bread yesterday, don't have any today, and in human terms are unlikely to have any tomorrow either."
It seems to be a cheap grace to pray, "give US OUR bread" when I know where MY bread is coming from, but I leave it up to God to figure out where YOU will get YOUR bread. Of what value is it to pray for bread for the breadless, when there is an unwillingness to contribute seriously to hunger relief or to advocate changes in policies, both locally and internationally, that keep people impoverished and hungry? How can your needs be included in my prayer when I am unwilling to be an instrument of God's use to help meet your needs? If someone sees hunger or knows of hunger and chooses not to respond in some way that implicates them in hunger relief, then maybe this is a prayer that is not ready to be prayed.
Things were so much simpler in Miss Steele's second grade class. We could stand with our classmates and recite the Lord's Prayer with a sincerity that comes only from innocence, and feel good for having done so. But now we cannot claim innocence. Now we know that we’re still not ready for prime time. We know too much about God, about the world, about ourselves. We now understand this prayer too well -- or at least well enough to realize that this is one prayer we are not ready to pray.
But then our Master comes and says, "When you pray, say ..." and those gentle words are compelling. For out of our humanness and shortcomings, we cannot give up praying. We desperately need to pray, and so we begin, “Lord, make us able to pray your prayer!”
Let us pray.
That God will banish violence from our midst and defend us against every evil. We pray to the Lord.
That God will bless and strengthen all families in faith, hope, and love. We pray to the Lord.
For those facing difficult decisions or stressful problems, that God will give them help and serenity. We pray to the Lord.
For the grace this week to live with all humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another through Love. We pray to the Lord.
That those who suffer from hunger and poverty have their daily needs provided for. We pray to the Lord.
That all gathered here might persistently intercede for those on the outskirts and margins of our community. We pray to the Lord.
Lord, help us to understand that in our prayerful moments with you, we accept the importance of silence and of listening for your voice. We pray also for the gift of listening to others, so that we can bring love and peace to those in need of sympathy and understanding. We pray to the Lord.
Jesus advises those in need – Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. We pray today that those of us who are blessed with enough in our lives hear the cry of those in need and be generous in our response. We pray to the Lord.
For all who seek comfort that they may find it in God’s healing word; and that God may hear the intentions found in our parish prayer list. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Father God, you are indeed our Abba Father. We know this from time eternal. We rest in this assurance. May your name be honored, cherished and pronounced with great reverence at all times. May your kingdom indeed come and give us new life in you that we may be made to conform to our created image that you originally desired us to be. In so doing, we can be more conformed to your will; the most holy and pure will in all the universe. In so, doing, we too will be in the fullness of joy. We desire you to not only supply our mortal nourishment, but also the bread of spiritual nourishment, so that we can be one with you at all times. Guide us in our ways that we may not sin, but when we do, come to us as a loving Father in your mercy and help us to see our errors and become the children you created us to be by forgiving anyone who caused us distress. For as we ask to be forgiven, so must we forgive others. Help us to persevere against sin and evil and be strong against Satan and his followers. May the time of trials at the end of days be no longer needed by those of us who live in your love. We ask all these things through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
++ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
St. Francis Chapel
San Diego, CA