Reorientations and Ultimatums

Sermon on the Mount Series#6 The Lords Prayer and Forgiveness, Matthew 6:5-15, Feb 23, 2014

Matthew 6:5-15

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“Pray then in this way:Screen Shot 2014-02-22 at 9.27.15 AM
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you;   but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Reorientations and Ultimatums

I met Michelle in college at a Christian student organization party.  She was the prettiest co-ed in the room, but as I started talking to her, I kept hearing her say a bad word.  She said, “we” – not referring to me.  She said things like, “We live off campus…we drive to campus in an old pickup truck.”

About whom could she be speaking?  I concluded that she was referring to her husband.  I thought she was married until she said another word; a wonderful word: “brother.”  The “we” was Michelle and her brother who were still living at home and commuting to campus together.  That radically changed the picture.  By the next weekend we had our first date.

Radically changing the picture is exactly what Jesus is doing.  And it is as thrilling as learning that the prettiest girl in the room is available.

Priority of Place

That’s why Matthew put it here, in the front end of his gospel, in the very first teaching that Jesus is doing – what we call the Sermon on the Mount.  After going around saying to the people, “repent” or “change your thinking” because “the kingdom of Heaven/God is here”  Jesus climbs up the mountain, just as Moses had done so long ago.  And, like the new Moses that he is, gives the new Torah or Instruction to the new family of God’s people, gathered there.

Blessed” he says, or “congratulations belongs to” the people who have Kingdom of God values – the poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice.  They are the ones who “get it.”  These kinds of people, with these kinds of values, are as indispensable to the world as salt is in the diet and as light is to everything.

Last week we reflected on the sad fact that the world does not consider us indispensable.  Rather, they consider us church people judgmental and hypocritical.  We were reminded that it is only the habit of regular, even daily faith-practices that can lead to the kind of transformation we are all hoping for, especially the daily practice of meditation and prayer.

We noted that one-day-a-week, Sunday-only Christianity is incapable of producing transformed lives.  Sunday-only Christianity may be why non-church people expect so little of us.

But that is exactly why Jesus taught us to pray, and today we heard Jesus teaching us to regularly recite the prayer we call the Lord’s Prayer.

Question: did Jesus make up this prayer from scratch?  Answer: No.  Jewish people in his time prayed a prayer as part of their daily practices.  They called it the Kaddish (or Qaddish) prayer.  Jesus took this prayer and radically transformed it.  It changes the whole picture for us in an amazing and powerful way.

I want to read the Kaddish prayer for you, and as I do, listen to the way God is conceived of, and listen for similarities with the Lord’s Prayer.  The first part will  be the Rabbi’s part, then there is a people’s response:

The Kaddish Prayer    

Magnified and sanctified be His great name in the world which He created according to His will. And may He establish His kingdom during your life and during your days, and during the life of all the house of Israel, speedily and in the near future, and say Amen. Screen Shot 2014-02-22 at 9.40.06 AM

“Response: May His great Name be blessed forever and ever. 

Blessed, praised and glorified, exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded by the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all blessings and hymns, praises and songs that are uttered in the world, and say Amen.”

I’m sure you heard similar concepts, like the hallowing of God’s sacred name and the expectation of the coming kingdom of God.  Those are like the first half of the Lord’s prayer.  “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

The Father Addition   

Jesus makes two changes that put everything in a radically new perspective.  First Jesus begins by addressing God as Father.  Yes, for Jesus, the One whose name is “blessed forever,”  the One who is “praised and glorified, exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded” is, at the same time,  “Abba,”  “Father,”  or “Daddy.”  It is almost embarrassingly intimate.

And now, the one praying is not like a peasant, groveling before a threatening monarch; but is rather the prince or princess; a child of the king.Screen Shot 2014-02-22 at 9.53.37 AM

The People Addition

The other radical, picture-changing innovation that Jesus made to the Kaddish prayer is that he adds people.  The whole second half of the Lord’s prayer is about humans.  It talks about “us.”

Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

The prayer to the King who is also Father mentions common daily needs: enough food for the day, forgiveness from daily sins, a request to avoid times of overwhelming trial and rescue from the temptations to do evil.

This is amazing.  The Kaddish is oriented totally vertically – up and down – it’s about venerating God.  The Lord’s prayer adds to this vertical axis, a horizontal axis.  It is also about the daily common needs and concerns of people. Now the prayer is cross-shaped.

Jesus is going to do the same thing again.  He will radically transform the Jewish daily creed, the recitation of the greatest commandment to “love the Lord your God will all your heart, mind and strength” by adding the second commandment, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  God and neighbor; cross shaped.  This is central to Jesus’ whole perspective.

As Jesus stands Moses-like on the mountain he is not only teaching like Moses, he is re-defining what it means to belong to the family of Abraham.  The people of the kingdom are people who have come to know the Holy God as Father, or Daddy.  And they are the ones who know how much God loves them – down to the daily bread concerns of life; down to forgiveness of daily lapses.

God’s Kind of Communities

This gets very specific: the God who cares about us humans, down to the daily-bread, level wants desperately for us to live in the kind of community that nurtures us spiritually.  But he knows that this is not likely.  It is not common.  It is not the default condition of a community of humans.

Rather, toxic communities are common.  Communities of alienation in which the well is poisoned, in which there is bad blood, broken relationships, bitterness and grudges and resentment is the rule.Screen Shot 2014-02-22 at 10.02.38 AM

The Forgiveness Mandate    

And so, to be a part of this new Jesus-movement, to be a kingdom person, it is required that we are forgivers of the wrongs of others.  “Forgive us our debts,” we pray, “as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

This is so fundamental, so essential, so basic, that Jesus breaks off the prayer right there to go in to deeper, detail.  He continues:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

How serious is this?  John Calvin got it completely in his comment on this text:

we are not to ask the forgiveness of our sins from God, unless we forgive the offenses of all who are or have been injurious to us. If we retain any hatred in our minds, if we meditate revenge, and devise the means of hurting; nay, if we do not return to a good understanding with our enemies, perform every kind of …endeavor to effect a reconciliation with them, we by this petition beseech God not to grant us forgiveness….” – Calvin’s Institutes,  Book 3, Chapter 20, sec. 45

It’s so clear.  It’s just what St. Francis prayed: “it is in pardoning that are pardoned.”

The Scary TruthScreen Shot 2014-02-22 at 10.04.28 AM

This is scary.  Think of all the people who would be in this room today if it was our  common practice to offer forgiveness.  Think of the relationships in your own life right now; can we claim to have forgiven all who have wronged us?  If not, when we pray this prayer, we are asking that God also to withhold forgiveness from us.

Now, one word is necessary: the subject here is normal community and family life.  The subject is not about extraordinary situations of abuse or neglect.  There is much to say about forgiveness in those situations, but time, today, restricts us to considering the kind of interactions we have with those around us in our families , churches and communities.

The honest truth that we must confess is that we Christians have been no better than anyone else at offering forgiveness when we feel wronged.  We get offended, we hold grudges, we seek vengeance, sometimes by passive aggressive means, sometimes by simply cutting off relationships.  And the sad truth is that this is so common and ordinary it seems normal.

Let us be clear.  According to Jesus, something has gone horribly wrong. Let us hear him say it again:

if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

What to do

Okay, assuming everyone in this room is feeling badly right now, myself included, we must ask, what can we do differently?

First we have to acknowledge that being a forgiving person is not our natural, default position. It is the result, not of our natural inclinations, but rather of the transformation from our natural tendencies into spiritual maturity.

In other words, we are back to what we learned last week.  Spiritual transformation is never achieved by once-day-a-week Christianity.  It is the fruit of the daily work of spiritual practices over a long time.

Prayer, the key

This is especially true of daily prayer – which is why Jesus brought up the subject of forgiveness in a lesson on prayer.   In order to have communities that are health-giving to the people in them, instead of toxic, the people in them have to be spiritually healthy,  instead of being toxic.

Most people who write and teach on the subject of spirituality say that we need 20 minutes a day of centering prayer to experience this kind of spiritual transformation.  Some call it meditation, some call it contemplative prayer, but all agree that this one daily spiritual practice is essential.

Centering prayer is a basic practice.  Also essential are the other normal Christian practices that Jesus taught: generosity, disciplined abstinence from apathy and neglect of the common good (that is, acceptable fasting, according to Isaiah 58), and of course heeding his words which are now written in our scriptures.

I believe it is the absence of these practices that have produced the Christian communities that our young people have walked away from.

It is never too late to begin.  We know that real substantial change can begin in as little as eight weeks of daily contemplative prayer practice.  In fact even smaller amounts of time help, but dosage matters.  More is better.  You will need help and encouragement.  That is what we are here for.

Feel the Thrill

Let us end by going back to the story I told at the beginning.  When I learned that Michelle was not married but available, it changed the whole picture for me, and I was thrilled.  Right now, maybe the picture has changed for us in an alarming way.

Let this be said: it should be thrilling for all of us to be shown a path towards authenticity.  It is wonderful to know the key to unlocking our community’s potential to be the kind of kingdom-community that Jesus envisioned.  It is the path of forgiveness.

It is within our grasp.  God has given us his Spirit to help us every single day as we repeat the practices of Christian spirituality.  We can experience transformation.  Let us be thrilled that our Heavenly Father will hear our prayers for help.  Let us rejoice that we have been given this moment to begin anew.

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