Unpacking the Lord’s Prayer – 8/10/08 – Matthew 6:5-15

Packing for road trips has been an evolving experience over the years.  I have this freeze frame scene in my mind of heading out to Hesston College by myself, driving in my ’86 Ford Escort packed out to the max, containing all of my useful possessions that I would be living with for the coming school year.  Fast forwarding eight or nine years I remember Abbie and I packing the much roomier Oldsmobile for a Labor Day camping trip before my last year of seminary, getting to use some of our newly acquired camping equipment and strapping the bikes on the carrier on the back for some good trail riding.  Since we have added two kids to our family, packing for road trips has taken on a whole new flavor.  Depending on how long we’ll be gone and where we’ll be going there is a whole series of calculations that have to be done about what items to take and how many of each item will be needed.  This is already a little tricky when doing it for oneself and is multiplied with Eve and Lily. 

And although I’m getting more and more thankful that we have a gas-efficient little Honda Civic, there are times when the “little” feature of the car isn’t all that handy.

The acquired skill, the key these days, is packing just what’s needed for the time while we’re gone such that we maximize the storage space in the car, while still having comfortable room for everybody to have some space during the trip.  If we pack too much, it either won’t fit or it makes for too scrunched of a ride.  If we pack too little, then any sort of scenario could come up where we either have to do without or have to go to the store and get what we need.  So the question that has to be asked before each trip now is, out of all that we have, what are the essential items?     

When the disciples come to Jesus and ask him to teach them what to pray they’re having a very similar experience, asking much the same question.  By this point Jesus has already given them a catalogue worth of teachings and they have witnessed him on many occasions restoring the sick, debating with religious leaders, sharing meals with people of all levels of society, even begin to speak of his own death.  They’ve been following him around, sometimes observing from the sidelines, sometimes involved, rarely clued into the moment and, it seems, barely able to take in the full measure of what they’re witnessing.  In short, they’re disciples, Jesus is the master, and they’re on a steep learning curve.  Like other master/disciple relationships of the time, these disciples would have expected Jesus to give them a condensed summary of all his teaching.  It was common for rabbis and teachers of the time to give their followers this summary in the form of a prayer.  The prayer would contain all of the major elements that the master emphasized in their teaching and would have been a kind of Cliff Notes version of what that teacher stood for.  So when these disciples ask Jesus what they should pray, it’s as if they’re saying, “Hey Jesus, what’s your prayer?”  How would you boil all this down for us?  Of all these words and images and teachings that you’ve been giving us, what are the essentials?  If we had one suitcase, and could only pack just what we need for this journey ahead, not too much and not too little, what would it be?  To this, Jesus responds by teaching them the prayer that we’ve come to call The Lord’s Prayer.   

What Jesus actually said when he taught them this prayer is lost to us.  He would have spoken in Aramaic and given them this prayer in the Aramaic language.  What we have are Greek translations of that prayer that would have been used by the Greek speaking early church and recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Luke provides a more abbreviated version of the prayer and Matthew includes the whole prayer that we know and is most familiar to us.  Matthew’s version is strategically placed in the center of the Sermon on the Mount, another signal that this summarizes Jesus’ mission, teachings, and relationship with God.

As a way of experiencing this prayer, what I’d like to do is something like taking these words out of their stuffed suitcase, giving each of them some space of their own, letting them be separated and unrolled and unfolded so we can give them room and take a look at them.  When one packs something in tight one can tend to treat the whole package as one big dense lump and miss all the variety and textures and of the unique items inside.  So we’ll take some of these articles out, hold them up, turn them around, and let them breathe some on their own.     

We’ll be following through the prayer as we have it in Matthew’s gospel, so you’re welcome to turn your Bibles to Matthew chapter 6:9-13.

Let’s begin with the first word and keep on working our way through the prayer.

Our – Interesting way to begin a prayer.  Our.  Immediately the prayer becomes something larger than just me, more than just mine.  It is we, us, our.  Placing us in a broader family.  A community.  Extended bonds of relationship.   To begin in this way is to begin with a connectedness to others.  We have this thing that we do in our worship together where we take time to share joys and concerns that we may be experiencing.  We listen to each other, we pray for each other, and we try to be mindful of these throughout the week.  I see this as one way this congregation experiences prayer as our prayer.  One’s concern becomes our concern.  One’s joy is shared by others.  The weight of a grief or the anxiety of a struggle or the gratitude of a blessing become owned by the community.  And we need community.  Prayer is one of those gifts that enables community to continue even when we are not physically together.  Whatever form our prayers take individually, they enable us to join together with each other and with this great big “us” of God’s family all over the world.  How does it affect our prayers to know that when we pray, even if we seem to be alone, we are being welcomed into a world-wide chorus of Spirited community? 

Father – Prayer includes the big “us,” but very quickly it is clear that prayer is about more than us.  It’s about our connectedness to the Spirit the undergirds our very being.  And what kind of Spirit is this?  It’s a Spirit Jesus names as Father.  This is one of the points where scholars are pretty certain they know exactly what the Aramaic would have been that Jesus spoke.  The word was Abba.  Meaning father, but in the familiar form, maybe better translated as “Daddy.”  A term of intimacy, naming both a respect and a closeness of spirit.  It’s been kind of a trip these last couple years starting to get called by this name and coming to know in a deeper way what it means to refer to God in this way.  Desiring what is absolutely best for the child.  That this is a name of intimacy is far more important than the particular gender it carries with it.  This does not mean that God is a male and doesn’t mean that we are not able to call God by other names.  Father is one of many metaphors for the God who cannot be captured or contained by any single image and name we have.  In Scripture God is also portrayed as a mothering Spirit.  Isaiah 66:13 says that “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.”  But neither is God reduced to human gender roles.  God is also rock, fortress, hiding place, eagle, fire, water, and dove.  When Jesus was teaching this prayer, and in his entire ministry, his message wasn’t that God must be known by any certain one of these images, but that the Divine energy that brought the world into being can be conversed with as an intimate.

The next series of words that follow Our Father begin and end with the same words — “in heaven” or “in the heavens.”

Our Father in the heavens Hallowed be your name.  Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in the heavens —  The prayer is directed to “the heavens,” the beyond, the unknown, the unfamiliar and even unimaginable.  There is a great distance being spanned here — and God is intimate parent, but also deep mystery.  The Bible portrays heaven as a realm where God rules with righteousness and is rightly honored, like a just king in a kingdom where the weak are make strong and the proud are brought low.     

And this is the point where the prayer starts to get dangerous.  In Matthew’s gospel Jesus speaks often of the kingdom of heaven.  Giving parables and teachings and performing healings that illustrate what it’s like.  Only for Jesus, this kingdom of heaven wasn’t just something distant, something in a far off ideal realm, something that was only possible at a future date, but something that is breaking in right now.  The kingdom of heaven is among you, is near you, is at hand, Jesus preached repeatedly.  And this message is here in this prayer.  Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  It’s dangerous because the prayer starts to move both ways.  Prayer isn’t only earth being directed toward heaven, but heaven being directed toward earth.  Such that whenever we ask of God, God asks of us.  We can’t pray that God’s will be done without also being ready to be part of that will.    

Give us this day our daily bread  The repetition of day/daily, highlights the focus of these words.  “This day,” “Daily bread.”  This day, daily bread.  It keeps us centered on where God would have us live.  Right now, right here, with enough.  Having daily bread is enough.  The food, the energy, the kindness, the clear mind, the creative ideas that we need to do well in a day are daily gifts to be received with grateful hearts.

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us

Of all the lines in the prayer, this is the one that Jesus provides some immediate commentary on.  Right after he is done teaching the prayer, he says this: “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.”  What do you make of this?  Are we to take this at face value?  Is this a threat, is it an encouragement, it is a bluff, is it a riddle?  Or is it an extension of what has already been established?  That when we ask of heaven, heaven also asks of us.  That the way that the kingdom comes is through the one praying.  Including the act of forgiveness and reconciliation.  That forgiveness is such a freeing, such a liberating gift that God is so willing to give that God would not want anyone to live without having themselves forgiven.  That God loves us dearly enough that God does not let us off the hook, but slowly, patiently allows us to experience the same kind of forgiveness for others that we know we need from God.  And so we pray with trembling hands, “forgive us our sins, even as we forgive those who sin against us.”    

And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one, with some on the ancient manuscripts also including for the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours forever.  Amen. 

The final articles coming out of this suitcase.  I’ve had some funny conversations with different people recently about Mennonites and conflict avoidance.  Keith recently told me that he says he’s not really a pacifist, but more of a passiveagressivist.  Some of us Mennonites, and others too, I’m sure, are highly skilled at avoiding external conflict only to realize that the conflict has been internalized and has to be dealt with in some way.  In other words, it’s not a matter of whether or not we enter the time of trial, as if we could avoid it, but how we deal with it.  Trial, conflict, and struggle is situation normal for us, just as it was for Jesus and his followers.  But somehow Jesus was able to be a bringer of the kingdom of healing and wisdom and reconciliation in the midst of the trial.  The kingdom and the power and the glory that he spoke of were not the power-plays and the glory seeking ways that are standard fare.  In praying that the real power and the real glory take their character from God’s kingdom, forever, one is freed up to live the Jesus’ way in the midst of trial.

These are the words Jesus gave in teaching his followers how to pray:

These words aren’t meant for storage and they aren’t just for lugging around.  And we can’t stop at unpacking them and looking at them sprawled out over the floor.  We’ve got to try these clothes on, walk and run around in them.  Get a feel for how they let us move, how they shape our actions and thoughts and other words.  We’ve got to get comfortable with how they feel on us, and maybe also uncomfortable with what they ask of us.  This is a prayer to live with on the road trip of life’s journey.