homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
October 8, 2014
If you grew up within the realm of Christianity, you have probably memorized and internalized the Lord’s Prayer. It is the most cherished prayer of our faith, because Jesus himself taught it to us. In today’s gospel reading from Luke, we hear the most basic form of the prayer.
There’s something stunning about realizing that Christians have used this prayer since the time of Jesus of Nazareth himself. It’s not silly to keep repeating the same prayer for millennia—but what if we’ve misunderstood Jesus? What if he didn’t mean, “Use these words,” but simply, “Pray in this manner”? If so, in what manner? What are the elements of this simple prayer?
Jesus begins by addressing God as “Father.” In another places, Jesus describes the Hebrew God as Abba—Daddy. It’s an incredibly familiar image of the transcendent God who created all things and who thundered on Mount Sinai—more like images of God we find in some of the psalms. Jesus asked us to imagine God not as distant and dangerous, but as very near and loving—as our creator in the sense that our parents created us. If God created both sexes, then God belongs exclusively to neither. So calling God “Mother” is equally valid, even if two thousand years of patriarchy has made such an image less familiar or comfortable.
Next comes praise: “hallowed be your name.” Jesus acknowledges God’s holiness and sovereignty. This is the flip side of the familiar image of “Father.” God isn’t just any parent, but the parent. So we can be clear that this is not some new god, but still the God of Israel, the great I AM. We haven’t lost sight of God’s transcendence, even as we approach God through images of closeness and warmth.
“Your kingdom come,” says Jesus, and more extensive versions elaborate: “Your will be done on earth as in heaven.” Those of us who pray the Lord’s Prayer are intentionally aligning ourselves with God’s reign and God’s authority. We want what God wants. We want God’s dream for the world to come true.
Once Jesus has established that our desires must fall within the realm of God’s desires, he begins to make his humble requests to God. The first is for something very basic, simple, and real: bread. Daily bread—just enough for now, but reliably, every day—like manna in the wilderness. Because we are God’s creation, we count on God to provide what we need for our basic survival. We are not self-sufficient beings.
Jesus’ second request is for forgiveness. Wait, you may ask. Is Jesus asking for forgiveness, or is he telling us that we must ask for forgiveness? We may well wonder whether Jesus ever asked for forgiveness, or whether that was never really necessary. But suffice it to say that Jesus identifies sin—that is, distance from God—as a core human problem. He phrases the problem using the metaphor of debt, and he asserts that the remedy comes not from us, but from God: God’s forgiveness of our debt. However, we are to ask for God’s forgiveness in the same breath that we assert that we have forgiven the debts of others. Here and in other places, Jesus makes clear that unless we forgive the debts of others, we cannot possibly benefit from the forgiveness God grants us. In aligning ourselves with what God wants, we cannot hang onto our feelings of entitlement—of being owed anything by anybody.
Finally, Jesus asks for heavenly guidance in the form of a negative request: “Do not bring us to the time of trial.” We usually render this as, “Lead us not into temptation.” So we ask God to steer us away from situations in which we might be tested beyond our capabilities. In so doing, we acknowledge that not everything in the universe is random, and that God is indeed able and, hopefully, willing to help us in this way.
So, to recap: we have an address … praise … realignment of our values … and then our specific but humble requests. What if we structured all our prayers in this way? Here’s one example we might imagine:
Jesus my brother and Lord, your example is an inspiration to me, and I give myself to you completely. I want to be on board with what you have done and are doing. In that spirit, could you please give me what I need to lead this group I’m overseeing? I know I’ve made some bad calls in that group, and I pray you’ll forgive me. I’ve been working hard to forgive those who I think have overreacted to my mistakes, though I totally understand where they’re coming from, and I’ve told them so. Some of my mistakes have come about in situations where I feel out of control, and it would be great if you could help me avoid winding up in that out-of-control situation again—unless, of course, that’s exactly where I need to be for you to be at work through me. Please help me be up to the task. Please do for me what I can’t do for myself. Amen.
Here’s another possibility:
Mama Spirit, you have brought me to life, and I’m so thankful. Sometimes I love to stand in a windy place and imagine that you are buffeting me about. Really, there’s nothing better in life that I can imagine than that. You blow where you will, and when I just go along for the ride, I find that things tend to work out pretty well. I’m not wealthy, but I’m happy. I know I have everything I need, because it all comes from you. When I fail to recognize that, please help me come back to you. Chase after me if you need to. Catch me up in your wind and carry me to new, exciting places. But don’t let me get so caught up in you that I forget about people who don’t understand you the same way I do. When they misunderstand me, please help me forgive. Help me, too, to understand others better. If you need to put me in situations that I can’t control, then at least don’t make it too difficult for you and me to handle together. Thank you.
Prayer comes in great variety, and we all approach the same God from very different places and different understandings. The God who made all things can be imagined in many different ways, and your image of God will not be the same as mine.
In that spirit, I encourage you to try this exercise at home. What will be your version of the Lord’s Prayer for your life today?