July 28, 2019


Good morning! For those who don’t know, my name is John Lein and I was sent from this parish to seminary three years ago. I have just taken my first call in West Virginia, and I’m back to visit, to preach this morning, and to be ordained on Wednesday here at Grace. I’m so glad to be with you today! The topic of the Gospel today is prayer: the function, content, and goal of prayer as taught by Jesus to his disciples. Your priest talked last week about contemplation, and what I’d like to talk about today is the absolutely necessary other half of the same coin: the action which is to grow out of our contemplative prayer. There are two major types of prayer: liturgical and extemporaneous. I grew up in a tradition that exclusively focused on prayers from the heart, rather than written, which Jesus certainly used. But this prayer is from the other category, a prayer that I always wondered about as a kid since here Jesus taught his disciples a specific way of praying that we never used in church! The written liturgical prayer that is meant to be repeated verbatim, as this one is, has a particular purpose. Many religious traditions have these models. Our most ancient religion, Hinduism, calls these prayers mantras, which is a compound Sanskrit word literally meaning “tool for thought.” These repetitious prayers are said to provide a framework for structured thought. The most famous Christian mantra is called the Jesus Prayer and it has been prayed by Eastern Orthodox for millennia, repeating over and over with the breath: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In Islam, salat is the second of the great five commands. The five daily times of prayer are required for all faithful Muslims. For one Sufi scholar, it is in prayer we are truly with God, not simply addressing God, and it leads us into constant dwelling in the presence, just as the Christian monk Brother Lawrence described in The Practice of the Presence of God. There’s a dialog of Socrates that explores his idea of the purpose of human life, the concept of eudaimon which is often translated “happiness”, as actually that of a wise person who is attuned to spirit and to the divine. Just as instruments must be tuned to work together properly to bring about a great work such as a symphony, so also our hearts must be attuned to a divine pattern. This, then is the context for establishing a standard prayer, and we rejoin the disciples waiting breathlessly for their prayer as followers of this teacher. Ok, so if prayer tunes us to God’s pattern, what is the key we’re to be in, what melody are we to play? To look at this, let’s use the longer and more familiar version of the Lord’s from Matthew’s Gospel and our liturgy. This prayer is beautifully crafted and very intentional. There is an address, two blocks of three petitions each, and then in the Liturgy we add a three-fold blessing to the end. The addressee is “Our Father, who art in heaven.” The metaphor of father gives our human brains an image of provider, of the first century householder who could be either man or women but regardless was responsible to care for their dependents and with reputations dependent on how well those who relied on them lived and thrived. The next three lines are succinct and powerful. The Greek verb form is imperative, that is, they are commands; phrased from human lips to God’s ear: Be hallowed — the — name — of you. Be come — the — kingdom — of you. Be done — the — will — of you. For a first century Jewish disciple, making the name of God holy would bring to mind their ancient Law Code. To be holy was to be pure and set apart in many ways, but it included requirements for social ordering and provision. The poor were to be cared for, the alien treated as citizen, and the accumulation of wealth and land to be broken up and redistributed regularly. At the pinnacle of holiness was Sabbath, the holy day, a day to cease from work and enjoy life—a deeply counter-cultural idea at the time. For a Jewish household, the reputation of the Householder was dependent on how well their dependents were cared for; for Jesus, God’s reputation was dependent on how well all of creation was cared for. The next line invokes Jesus’ favorite theme: the kingdom of God. As citizens of a country who rebelled against monarchy the term is foreign to us, and unfortunately Matthew’s pious orthodox substitution of “heaven” for “God”—as in “kingdom of heaven”—has led many to think this “kingdom” is unearthly. But for Jesus, “kingdom” was all too real and familiar. He looked around and saw how empire organized the world, and he longed for the human kingdom that Daniel prophesied about: that after the Greeks might come a reigning ordered by the divine rather than human violence. This kingdom was on his lips from the very beginning of his work, as in Mark 1:15 he introduced his teaching with “The kingdom of God has now come within your grasp; turn, and believe this good news!” Finally, Jesus tells us to pray “Be done! The Will of God.” This peak of the three, the end, brings to mind Jesus’ prayer in the garden, when he prays before his crucifixion that this “cup be taken from him” but that “your will be done.” Some Christians have interpreted this as meaning that God required Jesus to die of torture in order to be able to forgive people, but that doesn’t seem consistent with the teachings of Jesus or of Judaism. But it is clear by this point to both Jesus and ourselves that if he continues on with his trajectory he will end up coming head-tohead with the kingdom of this world that rules with violence, and the outcome is obvious. For Jesus, the WILL is the divine pattern of love, justice, righteousness. It meets with violent resistance from opposing powers; just as Jesus experienced. There is a clear transition from first half to second half of the prayer which is often obscured in English translation. In Greek the order of the words match the order of thought: “as in heaven so in earth”. We are now moving from the divine sphere to the human sphere. The three requests of the second “human” half are for provision, forgiveness, and staying on the right path. In the world of hunger and poverty that Jesus grew up in, a requirement of bread every day was powerful. Without the basic needs of food, housing, and clothing met for every human being, we cannot hallow God’s name. Second, there is a forgiveness component. Our liturgical recitation uses the term trespasses or sins, but the original prayers had a focus on debts. While this could be a metaphor for spiritual debts, there’s a good case for saying these are very real human debts. Jewish law required release from debts every 7th year. For Luke, God is to forgive us our sins only to the measure that we forgive the debts we are owed by people! One commentator describes this pair of requests as the “eternal peasant dyad”: “Enough bread for today and no debts for tomorrow.” Finally, there is the last coda, both comforting and troubling for some. “Do not bring us to the time of trial BUT rescue us from the evil one.” What does it mean to beg God not to lead us to temptation? Perhaps Jesus’ three temptations in the desert help us see. He was tempted with using spiritual power for his own personal needs, with publicly testing God’s commitment, and finally with ownership of the kingdoms of the world—note not creation itself but the structures of power. Taking control of creation using the model of worldly kingdoms, the model of violent coercion, is demonic regardless of who wields the power. As one wrote: “The last great temptation for Jesus—and also for us—is to use violence in establishing the kingdom of God on earth, thereby receiving it as the kingdom of Satan.” The temptation is to justify violence in God’s name, to use “divine leading” justification for demonic acts. Jesus taught his disciples this prayer with the expectation that they would pray it daily in search of atunement to the divine pattern of the world. He emphasized repetition, that if you continue to seek the Spirit will be given. And for Jesus, the result of this prayer would not be the direct intervention of God to change circumstances, but that through transformed hearts and visions we would take up our part in bringing this world into conformity with God’s reign. We have two sets of choices: 1. When we see injustice, or want the world different, will we succumb to the temptation to use the methods of the evil one in the name of God, or will we resolve to hold to the non-violent patterns of Jesus even knowing what he faced? 2. Will we attempt to manipulate God into coming and fixing everything for us, the way too often sacrifices, prayers, and rituals have been understood, or will we allow ourselves to be manipulated into the tools of God’s deliverance? These are the tough questions that this prayer asks us to wrestle with, but not unaided; if we keep this prayer on our lips, we are promised that our hearts will change, the spirit will come, and God will be with us. AMEN.