Sermon for July 28, 2019, Pentecost 7C. Audio can be found here for several weeks.
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
I was visiting some folks while I was on vacation and heard this story, told by the brother about his sister. The brother, now retired, remembered what happened in their family when his older sister became pregnant. They were an Irish Catholic family. She wanted to marry the father of her baby, but he was Protestant. So her father went to the priest to ask permission to give his daughter in marriage to a Protestant. Permission was denied. The priest told him that if he did, he would go straight to hell.
So, he went to another priest with the same question, and received the same answer. What was he to do? How could he not give away his precious daughter in marriage to the man she loved? But how could he sacrifice his eternal soul to hell? He sat long, with his whisky, in despair.
Finally, he made his choice. He loved his daughter. They would go to the military base where the man she loved was serving and have a wedding performed by a chaplain. He was willing to sacrifice his eternal destiny for his daughter.
The brother who watched his father and his older sister go through this crisis as a thirteen-year-old said, he gave up on faith, and God, and the church all at once.
Someone in the group asked what I, the clergy person present, thought about it. I answered this way: The outspoken atheist, Sam Harris has said that everyone is an atheist with respect to versions of God that we do not believe in.
So, Christians, he pointed out, are atheists with respect to pagan gods, and with respect to Hindu gods, and so on. So, we can all affirm that we are atheists with respect to versions of God that we do not believe in.
Sidebar: this does not mean that we do not respect people of other religions or their beliefs, it just means that we are Christians who have several ideas that are important to us as we conceive of the God Jesus taught us to put our trust in.
The point is that the God I trust in is not the kind of God that sends people to hell; especially not for intermarriage between Protestants and Catholics. I am, you could say, an atheist with respect to that version of God.
I do not believe that is the version of God that Jesus taught us to trust in. I am an atheist with respect to a judgmental, punitive, angry version of God, precisely because I believe Jesus was an atheist with respect to that incorrect understanding of God (regardless of how many times God was understood to be that way in the writings of the Hebrew Bible.)
In fact, I believe that it was high on Jesus’ agenda to teach a version of God that was a radical challenge to the notion of God that many of his contemporaries believed in.
And that is exactly what Jesus was doing in the text we read. He was teaching about prayer, yes, but at the heart of his teaching about prayer was a radical reformulation of the God he taught us to pray to.
Prayer is communication with God. To pray means to have a concept of the kind of God we are praying to. Our way of understanding God makes all the difference.
So, how did Jesus teach about what kind of God to believe in, as he was teaching his followers to pray? He did not start from scratch.
Starting with the Kaddish
Jesus was Jewish, as were all of his early disciples. To teach them to pray, Jesus started with the typical Jewish daily prayer they called the “Kaddish.” Kaddish means “sanctification,” The Jewish prayer begins with a request that God’s name be sanctified, or made holy (see Scott McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed.”) That sounds similar to the way the Lord’s Prayer begins “Hallowed (holy) is your name.”
The Kaddish says, “Magnified and sanctified be his great name in the world he created according to his will. 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. Amen.”
So, Jesus started with this standard daily Jewish prayer. But he made some changes to it. The first was that “Abba,” father, came before the request to sanctify God’s name.
“Father (Abba), hallowed be your name.”
Notice also that the Kaddish says “his name” while Jesus changes it to “your name” as if talking, not about God, but directly to God.
Both of these changes, calling God “Abba-Father” or even “daddy” and speaking directly to him show how intimately Jesus conceived of his relationship to God.
How do we pray? We think of ourselves speaking directly to someone who is as personal and as caring as the perfect father (or mother) would be; attentive, concerned, one who is a stake-holder in our concerns.
Yes, but, Really?
But is that God? Isn’t the God of the universe beyond all human categories of being? Doesn’t God, as the bible says, dwell “in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see”? (1 Tim 6:16).
Yes, and this is part of the mystery of faith: that God is utterly unknowable, “wholly other” than we, finite mortal creatures, beyond all thought or imagination. God is not a separate being, but is the source of all being.
We must never lose sight of this great truth. God is good, but not tame, as C.S. Lewis famously pointed out; God has not been domesticated and cannot be.
This is exactly what it means to say “hallowed (or made holy) is your name”. Holiness means god-ish-ness. God’s name, God’s essence is divine, infinite, eternal, or, “holy.” God is not a mortal to be messed with.
Neither is God a big masculine person in the sky. God is not a man. Nor is God a woman. God is beyond gender; both Adam and Eve, as the creation story goes, are made equally “in the image of God.” The divine includes male and female but is beyond both.
This could lead us to a problem. How would it be for us, if all that we knew about God was that God was infinite? We would be overwhelmed with awe, probably fearful of what God might do to us, probably worried that we had not appeased God in some way.
But this is the beauty of our mysterious Trinitarian faith: that the infinite God can be experienced in the analogy of a loving “father” or “mother” who loves God’s children as the perfect parent would, and looks after them, to raise them well.
So, God is aware that we need daily bread, and God provides the conditions for us to have it. God is aware that we will mess up, get it wrong, do the wrong thing, and God stands ready to mercifully forgive. But, God requires that his children do the same, that is, forgive each other, as God does, when they wrong each other.
God’s Kingdom, Come
Just like the Jewish Kaddish prayer, Jesus taught us to pray that God’s kingdom would come. But instead of thinking of it as a future event when God would come crashing down out of the clouds to crush the bad guys, Jesus helped us to pray that God’s kingdom, God’s realm would simply “come.”
In Matthew’s version of the prayer which we are more familiar with, this simple request is explained as “on earth as it is in heaven.” This simply means “here and now.” “Your kingdom come” simply means “May God be in charge here and now.”
Or, in other words, may we live as those who want what God wants, here and now, for ourselves, for others, and for our precious planet.
To pray for the kingdom to come is to pray:
- May justice be done.
- May the hungry be fed.
- May the homeless find shelter.
- May the victims of discrimination and abuse find security and healing.
- May the sick have access to health care.
- May our water, air, and soil be clean and our planet not overheated for us and for our children.
- May love and harmony, forgiveness, and reconciliation define our relationships.
- May we be peacemakers; “instruments of peace,” as St. Francis prayed.
- May we be able to come to God, trusting God to be our perfect parent, with all of our concerns; with all of our hurts, our disappointments, our unfulfilled longings, our grief and our worry about the uncertain future.
- May we be able to pour out our hearts to God with the confidence that God cares and that God has the capacity to redeem all the evil that has happened, by offering new futures.
Trust in God as Father/Mother
May we have the trusting confidence in God as father, or mother, to keep asking, even when we don’t see anything happening. Even when it feels as fruitless as banging on a neighbor’s door at midnight.
The mysterious, infinite God of the universe can be appealed to as a loving father/mother. There is no way God would give his/her children a snake when they asked for a fish, or a scorpion instead of an egg! Even a human father or mother with all of their failings knows better than to do that! How much more does God love and care for us?
But this does not mean that bread or fish or eggs drop out of the sky when we pray. God has given us hands and feet, brains and muscles, and expects us to work hard, be prudent, and self-disciplined.
And, God has given us the capacity to be the answer to the prayers of others who need bread, or fish, or eggs. We can be the answer to the cries of the children at the border and the people lost in the desert to which their poverty, vulnerability, and hopelessness have pushed them. We can be their answers to prayers by our courageous, compassionate response to their suffering.
Praying (not understanding)
I do not pretend to understand how prayer works, or why. I don’t believe God needs to be informed, as if God didn’t know, or reminded as if God forgot. I don’t believe God needs to be assuaged, by groveling, and I don’t think he is holding out for the best deal I can offer. I don’t think God is waiting until prayers accumulate, like sugar on a kitchen scale, before agreeing to respond.
All I know is that I have this need to say “Oh my God” and know that there is someone there to hear, who cares, and who wants what is best for me more than I do for myself. A God far different from the one that sends people to hell for giving away their daughters in marriage to people of other faiths.
This is the God Jesus taught us to pray to: an utterly, infinitely holy divine being, whom we can trust and know as “Abba, the Aramaic word for father or Ima, the word for mother.”