Psalm 85; Colossians 1:15-20; Luke 11:1-13
I want us to think together today about our own personal prayers, about the kinds of things we pray for, and how they relate to the Lord’s prayer. But it’s going to take me a few minutes to get there. I want to attend to this topic, because it hasn’t been my focus recently. I’ve been talking a lot about being God’s people, being the community that the world needs now, providing for the world an alternative way to live together. I’ve been doing that in part because of how I understand the church liturgical year. Advent and Christmas begin the year anew with God’s universal act of salvation at the incarnation of Jesus; then we find ourselves called with Jesus’ first followers into a personal, individual discipleship with Jesus, and then we turn inward during Lent. Not until Pentecost does our attention turn outward to the church as God’s new community; and that is where our attention mostly remains through the long stretch of ordinary time. That is, with figuring out how to live as God’s community and putting our faith into action.
And so I’ve been preaching about matters related to this: How to acknowledge and deal in a Christian way with enemies; how God’s claiming us in love as God’s own raises us above the search for self-esteem and the freedom to work without ceasing to make something of ourselves; how to rightly allow the Bible to question our culture and who we are; how we are not only forgiven by God but empowered as the church to be God’s agents in the world; and how being God’s people means following a distinctive way of facing racial and other conflicts, in which we repent of our own faults before pointing the finger at others.
I think it’s clear that I believe the church of Jesus Christ is called to be a strong community with a distinctive way of life. It’s basically like being a family in which we see ourselves bound together under God, except this family has no limit, no boundary. We are to open up our family to include the whole world, breaking down in the process all the walls of injustice and coldness that set us against each other.
Now that’s not the only way to see what our faith is all about. But I believe it pretty well captures the central concern of the New Testament, and especially in Paul’s letters to the first churches. Perhaps, though, I could be accused of overemphasizing this concern with being a new community in Christ, and of neglecting the way that Christian faith attends to our personal need for peace and purpose.
Yet I think it is wise to overemphasize how our faith calls us to be a new community. It is firstly wise because a meaningful community that practices an open, freely welcoming love is one thing that, deep down, people really want but can’t buy anywhere. You can buy, with time and money, a fit body; you can hire a therapist to deal with your personal issues or to prescribe antidepressants; and there are lots of groups you can join– political, fraternal, local organizations, sports teams, groups based on shared interests, many of which do great things—but all of them depend on being exclusive in some way or another. (I belong to several such groups; they are fun, useful, and have their place; I’m just saying that none of them can replace the unique saving work that God does in the church). We are the community that God has uniquely entrusted with, and holds accountable to, being a universal family. And by the way, I’m so glad that both our congregations have made it clear that being a universal family means being open and affirming regardless of sexual preference. To be a little crass about it, no one else can offer our product; we (in union with all faithful churches everywhere) have a corner on the market for meaningful, loving, open community.
But I also tend to overemphasize our call to be a distinct kind of community, because I’m convinced that the church has long neglected this essential component of our Christian faith. Perhaps it began with an early medieval church that was too eager to see itself holding the keys to heaven and hell—Peter’s keys, as they were called. By arrogating this power to itself, the church found a way to intimidate people into obedience and securing worldly power. Often it was only in the cloisters where the biblical ideal of being a distinct community of God thrived, but in a pretty exclusive way. The Protestant reformers tried to revive this ideal and apply it to the whole church, but they gladly inherited the medieval threat of hellfire and the power it enticed them to grasp at. The church used to sell itself as the only place where you can escape hell; I’m against putting it that way, and I’m sure you mostly agree with me on that, and we are not alone. Among our evangelical Protestant sisters and brothers, 82% still believe in hell (according the Pew Forum data from 2014). But that number drops to 60% for mainline protestants like us, and, interestingly, a very similar figure of 63% for Catholics. Many of my theological colleagues long ago lost interest in the fear of hellfire, even if hell can be recovered as a symbol of the drama of salvation; and people in the pews are coming to the same conclusion.
But just as the threat of hell was beginning to wane, freeing Christianity from its obsession with creating and relieving the ultimate anxiety of personal destiny, and just as we started to see in the 19th century a renewed turn to the importance of Christian community, and to the “social gospel” as it was called, Christianity walked right into modern consumerism. [mic thud] According to our modern consumer economy, the point of life is to make a lot of money so that you can then help yourself to whatever goods and services you want. There’s not much room for community in this lifestyle; “it’s all about you,” as our ads relentlessly tell us—as if we can trust ad men to tell us what it is all about. Once people internalize that view of life, they inevitably begin to look to their religion to make available either a good or service in exchange for membership dues. And the church has too often been eager, or at least resigned, to cater to that mentality. So we offer up our goods and services for sale to attract ‘customers’: “come and get that sense of security in the face of life’s persistent questions”; “come find relief from those old guilts,” unless psychotherapy has already beat us to it; “come find a place for your children to receive at least some basic moral values amid a nihilistic culture;” “come and find a quiet place to be ‘centered’”; “come feel like you are part of a respectable set of people”—the kind of people who like intelligent sermons, or fine classical organ, or who can go to church on Sundays and still pass the bottle on Thursdays; “come join the people who show a proper sense of duty toward their community, or who practice a reasonable amount of service on behalf of the ‘undeserving.’” These are all pretty good / goods and services that we indeed offer, that our church offers. I have nothing against them; I think many would find them attractive. But it is a problem if that is how we understand ourselves: we offer these goods. What is missing is the Lordship of Christ, so amazingly testified to by Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “All things have been created through him and for him.” It is God in Christ who offers salvation. What is missing in “goods and services” is the sheer confrontation with the reality of God, the mystery of something so far beyond us—“He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together”—so far beyond us that we probably ought to, at some point or another, forget all about what we came here for. Because ultimately we come for the reality of our God, who is not another service provider, but beside which everything else, all our needs and desires, look small and unreal. One traditional philosophical description for God was, in Latin, the “ens realissimum”—the most real thing. That’s why our first word after invoking the name of God in prayer is, “Holy be thy name.” Holy, meaning distinct, set apart, not to be trifled with. We don’t expect the names of other service providers to be holy. Walmart, Macy’s, Amazon.com. We may thrill at these names, but if I can go out on a limb, we won’t say of them, holy be thy name, O Amazon. .Com. / So when I hear from some of you that, “The church is a business,” I will take your point to be, we must show financial responsibility. Amen. Indeed, I’ll add that we must be more fiscally responsible and diligent that any business, because we are responsible not to a lifeless bottom line, to a faceless group of shareholders, or to an ultimately self-interested profit motive, but to our holy and all-seeing God. But we are not literally a business, because we do not, above all, provide goods and services in exchange for remuneration. God provides them; and even when God fails to provide, we come just out of awe for what God is. Now no one stands before Walmart, struck with tear-strewn awe over what Walmart has done, and who Walmart is. Surely Walmart is not before all things, in whom all things hold together./ We come here to give and receive, to do things together, to be a community, but even just to stand in awe over what God has done and who God is.
• • • • •
Luke tells us that Jesus was praying “in a certain place.” It’s amazing that the Bible describes Jesus as the one in whom and for whom all things were made, things we would only say of God himself, and yet so often depicts him praying to God. Jesus certainly does not act like some God in human disguise; rather, he is divine only in being fully human, such that we can imitate him. And so the disciples come up to him when he is done praying, and ask for tips for successful prayer, like John gave his disciples. They want some useful, practical advice from Jesus. So he gives them something, although not much: a short prayer, with no additional tips about when to pray and with what posture or what attitude. The parables and saying he adds after are really about openness of the God to whom they pray.
So Jesus gives them one version of what became “The Lord’s Prayer,” which Christians everywhere, as they have for millennia, pray every time we gather. We mostly rely on the elaborated version of the Lord’s prayer found in Matthew’s gospel, with its variations of translation and tradition. Luke’s version is short and simple. Jesus addresses the prayer to “Father,” which shows a familiarity and trust that was not unheard of in Judaism, but still striking. (He and his disciples were probably not ready to address God as “Father and Mother,” as we sometimes do, despite the number of feminine images for God that we find in the Bible. But in the parable that follow the prayer, it is clear that Father does not mean a strong man, an authoritarian figure, a patriarch, as fathers would have been expected to be in that time, but rather one whose compassion does not fail, who gives good gifts to his children.)
“Father.” As I’m sure we’ve heard before, Jesus signlas in this way a familiarity with God as a parent. But he qualifies it: “Hallowed be your name.” He reminds us that God remains holy, different—not distant or unapproachable, but all the more awe-inspiring and mysterious the closer we draw to God. And then he makes a few simple petitions, like our intercessory prayer.
I’ve just read a book by a former teacher, Nicholas Wolterstorff, called The God We Worship. I wish I had time to tell some stories about Wolterstorff, and trot out my imitation of him. He was a good man of great faith, although I found myself disagreeing with him intellectually. But in this book he provides a marvelous study of the Lord’s prayer. He notes that the prayer is essentially a kingdom prayer. There is one big petition in the prayer, one overarching request: Your kingdom come. The standard version that we pray reiterates it at the end: “Yours is the Kingdom, the power, and the glory.” The Kingdom of God is the first and last item on Jesus’ prayer list. As Wolterstorff puts it, the prayer for God’s kingdom to come is the frame for the whole prayer, and all other petitions fit within that frame. He quotes another theologian: “All genuine prayers for the small and large, personal or general things, about living, working, saving, and helping, are related to the coming of the reign of God, as the fulfillment of God’s promise.” In this way, the prayer, “Thy Kingdom come,” gives all of our petitions of God their unity, so that we are not just praying for this and that. We also pray for our daily bread—at once a reminder that not all can count on even the most basic daily sustenance, and that those of us who can, should see even the simplest of fulfillments as God’s gifts for all to enjoy. We pray for reconciliation with God and with our neighbors—the forgiveness of debts. We pray not to be placed in trial. But these and other petitions look different when encompassed within the prayer for the kingdom.
Now, in Jesus’ preaching, the Kingdom of God is something that is already beginning in his ministry, and yet he instructs us to live in expectation of the kingdom coming in its fullness, when God will make good on our prayer, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” The kingdom is the destiny of the whole world, the summation of all our hopes. Thus the little prayers are not just about little things, they are about the signs that God’s kingdom is already taking effect. We pray for health and safety for our loved ones and for us; we pray for a fever of 103 to abate, as I found myself praying for Silas this weekend. We pray that life will triumph over a sister’s cancer, for God’s shalom to be felt even in the midst of Alzheimers. It is right and good to pray for these things, to commit our cares to God, trusting in God, without claiming to know what God does in response. But with the Lord’s prayer as our guide, we pray for these things not just as isolated goods and services we are requesting of God, but as signs of God’s kingdom, as partial manifestations of the kingdom in which all will share gratefully in daily bread, when all will be forgiven and forgive each other, when the forces arrayed against God will no longer require the faithful to go through trials and sufferings, when senseless disease will no longer mar God’s creation, when all children will be safe from threat and all be equally protected and cared for. The kingdom prayer allows us to have our small, personal prayers, but to hold them within a larger, world-encompassing vision. Thus we recall that God’s goods and services are not finally meant for our private consumption and personal benefit, but for all; and when our prayers are answered, we are not God’s “satisfied customers,” but we all the more long for the world in which all such prayers are answered.
May we prepare, perhaps as never before, to pray the prayer that Jesus taught us.