Matthew 6: 5-15, NRSV 8-6-17 ACCUCC Rev. Tony Clark
‘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:
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.
Living Loving, Laughing, Parent to us all, teach us to pray. Bring your reign of justice to this place. Give us what we need for today, and Forgive us as deeply as we have hurt you. Grant that we may follow your path; may the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and redeemer. Amen.
This month we are going to look at what is probably our most common prayer, the Lord’s Prayer. We say this every week, mostly from memory, and sometimes when you do things by rote, they can lose their meaning. So we are trying this month to unpack some of the meaning of this common prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer is found in the Bible in two places, in Matthew, that we just heard, and in Luke, which we will read next week. They have some differences, and they are found in different contexts. The one from Matthew is most like what we pray every week; the one in Luke is shorter and simpler. In Matthew, this prayer comes in a discourse on praying. In Luke, the Disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, and he gives them this prayer.
The Disciples were religious folk, steeped in Judaism, and knowledgeable about God. They knew how to pray; Judaism had and still has a deep prayer life. But still, these devout prayers ask Jesus how to pray; perhaps like many of us, they had no idea what exactly to say in a prayer. In a time and place of sever upheaval and overwhelming injustice, when prayers seem hollow and God’s silence is deafening, they might have been asking, “How do you get God’s attention? How do you ask God for things you need? What is the best way to address God?”
Jesus answers with a simple prayer: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed is your name….” This was a conversation with someone he was close to, someone he revered, someone whose address he could name. Then Jesus named God’s presence, here and everywhere: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Then Jesus asked for specific things, “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 time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” Give us enough food for this day that we are not hungry, enough forgiveness to turn our hearts toward forgiving others, and enough love that we are not tempted to do evil.
This prayer was moved into our worship pretty early on, with an added line, “For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever. Amen.”
Jesus used a typical formula for this prayer, an address to God, an acknowledgement or invoking God’s presence here, offering of thanks, and then a request from God with the expected results of God’s action stated before closing. Jesus addressed God as Papa, and then he then simply named God’s place: in Heaven, and said that even though God is as intimate as a family member, God’s name is to be said with reverence. Then he invoked God’s presence by asking that his rule of justice be not just in heaven but also here on earth. Then Jesus asked for what we need—food, forgiveness, and love, and before closing, Jesus said what the expected results would be—that we would not be tempted nor turned toward evil. Simple.
Jesus taught us to pray with humbleness, in private, without a lot of extra words. Jesus said that God knows what is on our heart even before we pray. In the act of saying it, we (not God) begin to understand what we really desire. The political realm based on true Justice. Food for this day, no more, no less. Forgiveness as wide as all bad things we do, and as deep as all the bad things everyone does to us. Focus to keep us away from temptation and on the path toward God.
Jesus addressed God as if God is a close family member, “Abba” or “Papa,” which must have sounded a bit too informal to some. In Judaism there is a long tradition of not saying or fully spelling God’s name because it is too powerful. Yet Jesus insisted that God wants a personal relationship, and, therefore, we can call God something personal: Friend, Father, Mother, maybe even Lover. We don’t need the high fancy words to get God’s attention.
The way we pray says a lot more about us than it does about God. How we say each of those things shows who we believe God is to us. Is God close and personal like a friend or family member whom we can tell our deepest secrets, or a distant ruling entity we approach with reverence and fear? Do we experience or imagine God’s presence like being in splendid overwhelmingly bright beauty or like common everyday life with all its shadows and hiding spaces? Do we humbly approach God for our needs or do we expect or demand that God to do our bidding?
My own public prayers often start with “Holy One,” or “Most Divine Presence.” These are fine ways to address God, yet I have begun to realize that calling God “Holy One” or “Most Divine Presence” places God in a distant, relatively unapproachable throne room far away, a judge before whom I must proclaim my guilt or innocence. Struggling to find that personal God with whom I have had a close connection, I began to open my prayers with, “Living, Laughing, Loving Friend,” a much less serious God, who is friendly and joyful; in renaming the way I address God, I have felt more connected with God. My pleas for God to be with me or to reveal God’s presence to me have turned into statements of, “I know you are here, enliven me.” This says more about my need then about God’s accessibility or approachability.
Likewise, what we ask for is important; and next week we’ll talk about that. However, I want to recognize that there are times when we cannot pray ourselves, because asking seems too arrogant, or maybe it seems feel like God is not listening, or maybe what we deeply desire feels too out of reach. A chronically ill person might have difficulty asking for health, or a lonely and isolated person may have difficulty asking for friends to step in, and the unjustly imprisoned may have trouble seeking justice.
Later in Matthew, in the passage about “When did we see you naked and give you clothing,” Jesus taught us to feed the hungry, visit the sick and imprisoned, clothe the naked, as if we were doing it in his name. He called us to pray with and for others, by listening to their cries and restating them to God. Many times, as I pray for and with someone else, when I can verbalize what they cannot--their deepest desires-- I feel the spirit rising in them and the tears of release begin to flow, as they recognize that someone has heard them and made a plea to God on their behalf.
There is no specific injunction that this is only done by trained professionals; it is the call of each of us to be able to pray for others. As we visit our shut-ins, or those who are sick, or even our friends from church, it is appropriate for each of us to pray with them. We’ve had some training in visitation for the Worship and Pastoral Board—the Deacons, and I hope to expand this to the broader congregation. I believe we all can take on this task of praying as we visit each other.
I have created a booklet to take with you as you visit others, and I encourage you take one. In it there is a basic formula for prayer: An Address to God, with an honorific title, an invoking of God’s presence, offering of thanks, request and outcome of the request, and a closing. I encourage you to practice writing simple prayers that address God, name God’s presence, give thanks for blessings, and name a request and an expected outcome of God’s action. What is meaningful for the people you visit? Practice on each other—spend a few minutes listening about a specific need, and formulate a prayer for that one, maybe at home after the conversation. Perhaps then send that prayer in an email or a postcard. Another way to practice is to write a prayer for an upcoming event; you do not need to speak it at the event, but you may find that going in with an intention named ahead of time gives the event a different feeling for you.
Compare your prayer to the Lord’s Prayer. Who is God to you, and how do you approach God? What are you asking for, and why? What will happen if God grants it?
And then don’t forget to close with, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name….”