Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Last week I said I would aim these sermons on the Lord’s pray ultimately at this question: “How can we pray this from the heart?” But first, a few preliminaries.
The first phrase is just an antiquated translation for saying, “Our Father who is in heaven”—although in the Greek it says “in the heavens.” And in more contemporary English we would continue: May your name be made holy. Hallow means make holy or sacred. Now, the “Thys” and “thines” might sound formal to you. It is not. In King James English, “You” is formal; it’s how you address a stranger. “Thou” and “thy” and “thine” is informal and intimate, the way you address a family member—a Father.
Or a mother. Let’s cut right to the chase about gendered language. There is no good reason to prefer Father to mother in addressing God. I can assure you that no important authority in 2000 years of Christian tradition has ever said, God is male. (And that’s significant, because for most of those 2000 years the church was deeply patriarchal; it denied equal power and dignity to women and was often violently misogynist or anti-woman.) But everyone knows that God is beyond male and female. The Bible refers to God as he, but also often uses maternal imagery for God. We will rightly, in a few minutes, conclude our communion by praying, “God our Mother and Father.” We could very wisely decide to change the Lord’s prayer to “Our Mother” to help correct for those 2000 years of women’s oppression.
But if we don’t, please notice that the prayer says, “Our Father in heaven.” We are addressing God as our transcendent Father, far above the flawed fatherhood that we know on earth. Some people fear that calling God father might make someone who suffered under an abusive father think of God that way. We should be sensitive to that, but Jesus is not telling us to picture our own father when we pray to God. He didn’t even have a biological father, according to the legend of the Virgin Birth. When I pray the Lord’s prayer, I never wistfully picture my Dad up in heaven, although he is a good father. To pray to Our Father in heaven is much more to judge our own fathers than it is to deify them.
And don’t forget to add, “Hallowed, Made Holy be thy name.” It is possible to read this phrase as saying the same thing as the two that follow it: hallowed be thy name; thy Kingdom come, thy will be done. You can say these three phrases as adding up to a prayer for God to complete God’s work on earth, that the final day of perfecting the earth may come. More on that next week. But this week let’s look at it this way: the Lord’s prayer starts with the tender address of God as our father, followed by the recognition that God’s name is to be made or kept holy. God is always holy, always sovereign, above us, beyond us in every way, beyond all the concepts of our mind, including the idea of fatherhood or parenthood.
And yet the point is to address God as our parent. Jesus didn’t pray: Almighty, mysterious God, who are also a father to us.” No, where we begin is with God as personal, very personal to us; and more to the point, parental. To pray this from the heart, we need to meditate on why Jesus wants us to pray to God as our parent.
Now I’m a parent. And I marvel at the naturalness of parental love. It is so strong. I couldn’t stop loving if I tried. I used to think I was pretty selfish; and now I know at least when it comes to my son, I’m not that selfish. It’s nice! I’m a pretty good dad, a good father. But I know one thing: I’m not Our Father in Heaven. My parental love is still very natural and earthy, still very limited by biological drives and competition. I know I’m not the only one who experienced becoming a parent, or just having a parent, as a big step up from being all about me, from placing myself at the center of the universe. Now I have a child, and I can never again be just about me. This is already true when we fall in love, and unite ourselves with another in love. But that love for your child—wow. Being a lover, holding dear a spouse is wonderful. But Fatherhood has shown me a whole other dimension to love I didn’t understand. And so it is that we do pray: “Our Lover in Heaven”—although we could have! God is also depicted as a lover in the Bible, a spouse. But it’s parental love that really captures something about God.
But I’m no parent as God is a parent, a Father in Heaven. I love just this one child. My parents had six; good thing, since I was number six. (And I think they intended to stop with five.) But I’ve just got one. And I want him to succeed. We’re saving for his college, we engage his mind in reading, we make sure he has good travel experiences that will make him worldly, we tutor him in French. We try to make him feel confident and to have a big imagination, so he’ll be able to do anything he wants—isn’t that the way we usually put it? I truly give myself to his cause. I don’t do that for other kids. Oh I care about your kids, but not like my own. And sure, I hold lofty political views that I think would benefit disadvantaged children. Bully for me. I’m willing to sacrifice a little for the cause of other children. But not my heart.
God’s a better parent than I am. Comparing myself with God isn’t the point of the prayer. Let’s say, God is a parent of a different order. I know you love your children. (Even though we are all flawed parents.) And all of us have known parental love—again, however flawed. But I know that you know what some children in this world are going through right now. You don’t need me to trot out example of the terrible sorrow that some children are going through, today, maybe across the globe, maybe down the street. I know you shudder with horror when you hear such stories. We inevitably turn away. We inevitably protect our hearts by saying, Thank God—hmm—it wasn’t my child. That’s our created love, the same good love animal parents have. A squirrel is not, I think, going to shed tears over another squirrel’s misfortune. And God our creator is the source of this natural love that puts my child above all others. But with us—because we are created in God’s image—God just won’t leave it at that. We can’t help feeling compassion. We can’t help pausing at least to think: That could have been my child. “My God what that parent must have felt.” That’s just in us—even if just a little, even if we don’t do anything with it—and maybe we should do a lot more with it. But we’re for the most part going to stick with being very earthy parents, for whom this is my child, that’s your child.
Not God. Not our Mother in heaven, not our father who is the perfection of parenthood. God refuses to say, Oh, that’s very sad, but thank God it wasn’t my child. You know, God could have been a parent like that, in our limited way. God finally got a righteous son. God finally had a child who honored and served God, and understood God and could speak to others about God. IT was all quite clear already by Jesus’ baptism: With you I am well pleased. God could have gone on: I’m quite satisfied. I’ve got my child. I got what I was looking for. The rest of you (who are kind of a sad lot, and anyway a bit of a disappointment too)—you are on your own. Good luck to you, and to your children.
God refuses this option. God refuses to be a father like me. God refuses to say, Not my child. God says this: That child you heard about last week, you heard those very sad stories about, and you shook your head in a brief moment of compassion when you identified with that bereft, aching parent—I’m that parent. Now multiply that by 10,000—that’s my day as a parent. You have a hard time imagining that, because you are not capable of it. And so I think you don’t believe me. You deep down suspect that I only love those who love me. I only love good church goers, or only love my chosen people, or only those who demonstrate loyalty and righteousness. Or maybe you think that if someone is suffering, if someone looks forsaken, it must be because I don’t love that one. Maybe you think that child you heard about last week suffered because I’m like some kind of horrible parent who arbitrarily abandons a child to neglect. A parent who plays favorites in the worse kind of way. Well, my child, you’re wrong. Look to Jesus. I had the perfect child. And I gave him up.
When we talk thus, daring to speak in God’s own voice, we must remember that God’s name is holy. God is beyond us. We can’t just imagine our way to God. God didn’t sacrifice Jesus in any simple sense that we can claim to understand. The Romans did it, the religious establishment did it; it’s even fairer to say we killed Jesus. But the point is this: God doesn’t play favorites. God doesn’t turn away from the bad child and content himself with the good. God’s not a parent who turns away from a suffering one and say, not my child. God is a parent to all, with all the suffering and forbearance that we can only imagine must come with that. But God’s love is powerful and triumphant. It is heavenly, joyful. Once in awhile, we get a glimpse of a deep joy that penetrates even our darkest sorrow. You know what I mean? That’s just a taste of the heavenly power of God’s parental love. (God is not to be pitied.) And Jesus is risen and triumphant, and not to be pitied.
I know just a little of that divine, parental love. Some of you know more of it. Some of you have adopted children generously, almost promiscuously, beyond your “natural” family, or taken a grandchild as your own child. Some of you have had no choice but to keep loving as a parent when your child has spurned your love. And all of us have adopted each other, at least in principle, as un-natural family, as brothers and sisters not by our blood, but by the blood of Christ that covers all. You all know something of God’s divine parental love. But not so much that I’m going to pray to you. None of us is a father or mother in heaven, holy be my name. God alone is this parent to whom we pray. And you may have experienced the love of God, filling in where a parent or lover failed. Maybe you haven’t felt that, or haven’t needed to. But we know that this love is there, because God has created an amazing love already in us, and even more so God gives us glimpse of this call of perfect love beyond what we can imagine being capable of.
What is it to pray from the heart: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name? It’s very different from meditating on my good qualities as a parent. It is to confess already that I’m not the heavenly parent. I can’t help but turn away from being a parent to all. And really, I’m not even supposed to be that. But though I turn away, I can at least turn toward the one, the Holy One, who is that parent to all, who is our Father, and Jesus intended the whole world to take up this prayer of the disciples and say as one family: Our Father. And in turning to God as our Father, I open myself to be more like God, and to be forgiven when I’m not.