When a nightclub opened on Main Street in a small town, the only church in that town organized an all night prayer meeting. The members asked God to burn down the club. Within a few minutes, lightning struck the club, and it burned to the ground. The owner sued the church, which denied responsibility. After hearing both sides, the judge said, “It seems that wherever the guilt may lie, the nightclub owner believes in prayer, while the church doesn’t.
It’s true that an unfortunate number of good, hard-working church goers never pray. Praying - one of the easiest things in the world to do because there are no correct words that must be said, no particular postures that must be emulated - is one of the most difficult disciplines people find to adopt. This morning and for the next few weeks we are going to take a look at a prayer that was given to those who did not know how to pray - a prayer that is just as applicable today as it was 2,000 years ago. In today’s gospel, Jesus’ disciples ask Him to teach them how they ought to address Almighty God. He responds by giving them a prayer. “When you pray, this is how you speak to God, ‘Our Father ...’”
This prayer has traditionally been known as the Lord’s Prayer. It is a prayer which has somehow through time, come to be known as a church prayer - ie. We say it only when we are in church or at a religious rite like a funeral or wedding - but has no bearing on our everyday life. But the original intent of the this prayer had nothing to do with church. Jesus did not teach it to his disciples as part of worship; it was not used in the temple or synagogues; it was not meant to be relegated only to Sunday morning worship services. And it was certainly never meant to be recited simply for the sake of tradition. The Lord’s Prayer, by the very nature of its content, the words it uses, the appeals it makes to God, was to be a model for how Jesus’ followers are to pray every day, in their work life, their recreation life, their social life, first thing in the morning, last thing at night.
Although it is a short prayer, I’m going to spend the next few weeks teaching on the Lord’s Prayer. First for those who have no church background and do not know the prayer and therefore it has little to no meaning for them. And secondly, for those who know the prayer they can recite it in their sleep, because often when we know something that well, it has lost it’s meaning to us and we simply recite it because that’s the thing we are expected to do. So this week we start with the first sentence of the prayer. In fact we'll concentrate on the first two words.
There are people who are offended because Jesus taught us to address God as Father. Some for very valid reasons, some just to stand on a principle, cannot connect with God as a Father figure. Maybe we should consider that the greater offense is in the little word “our”.
When we say “our”, we are not being possessive. No one has been successful at wrapping God into a neat little package that can be kept on a shelf and taken down when we need a dose of religion or an answer to a problem. God, the creator of the universe, can’t be contained. We say “our” because of the astounding recognition that this God - the one who flung the planets into their courses, the great God of heaven and earth - has willed to become our God. Before we reached out to God, God reached out to us and claimed us, promised to be our God and promised to make us His people.
God came to us saying “You will be my people and I will be your God.” So not because of what we have done but rather because of what God in Jesus Christ has done, are we privileged to say “Our Father”. Or if you like, Our Mother, Our Parent, Our Creator.
Jesus gently reminds us that God says “You did not choose me. I chose you.” Our relationship to God is due to God’s choice of us, rather than any initiative on our part. God’s choice of us is a gift that we often speak of in the church as grace - amazing grace. It’s amazing particularly in a culture in which we are taught to believe that anything important is earned, achieved, worked for. Yet faith in Jesus as Lord can only come as a gift. Baptism reminds us that all of us have been adopted. We call it grace.
Sometimes the words people use to describe their relationship with God disturbs me. They say things like, “Since I took Jesus into my heart,” or “Since I gave my life to Christ.” Our relationship to Jesus is His idea before it is ours. We don’t take Jesus anywhere. He takes us places. Those who speak of having a personal relationship with Christ are right; it is personal. But it is not private. We are all in this together. Therefore, you will note that when we say the Lord’s Prayer out loud, we are demonstrating the public nature of this faith.
It is comforting to know that even though you don’t always feel like a Christian, though you don’t always act like a Christian, much less believe like a Christian, your relationship to Christ is not based on what you have felt, done or believed. Rather, you are God’s child because of God’s choice of you, in Jesus, through the church. As God’s child, in church, you pray the words of the Lord’s Prayer out loud, in public, out of habit whether you feel like you want to pray at the moment or not. As I said, Jesus did not intent for this prayer to be a church prayer only. It is to be said every day for the same reason it is often said in church; so that we develop the discipline of daily prayer and to remind ourselves that we are God’s children as disciples of Jesus are therefore are obliged to pray whether we feel like it or not. The prayer reminds us that we are dependent on God for the daily needs of our life - food, forgiveness, deliverance from temptation.
One reason why our denomination chooses to baptize not only believing adults but also infants is that babies are helpless, dependent, needy little things. If we are a person of faith, each of us at any age is recognizes that we are helpless, dependent, in need of God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
I attended a communion service at an Catholic church not long ago, and I am struck by the way the Eucharist, what we call Communion is served. Each person approaches the front of the church with empty hands outstretched to receive the communion wafer. It is a visible, physical way of demonstrating our hunger, emptiness, and need for God and God’s people to give us our daily bread.
There’s more to the little word “our” even than this. We not only joyfully declare that God is Our Father, our friend and creator, but we say Our Father, praying in the plural. It would have been a different matter if Jesus had taught us to pray “My Father, ... give me this day my daily bread and lead me not into temptation ...”
There may be religions that come to you through quiet walks in the woods, or by sitting quietly in the library with a book or rummaging around in the recesses of your psyche. Christianity is not one of them. Christianity is inherently communal, a matter of life in the body the church. Jesus did not call isolated individuals to follow him. He called a group of disciples. He gathered a crowd.
Think how you got called to be a disciple. Was it an idea you thought of yourself? Was it revealed to you by staring up into the sun or walking in a field of clover? Most likely not. You are here because of association with other disciples. Someone had to tell you the story, had to live this faith in such a way that you said to yourself, “I want to know more about this. I want to be part of that.” Somebody had to walk the walk and talk the talk. Maybe it was a church going parent, or someone you met at work or in school or one of the people whose stories are told in the bible. The communal call was not accidental, but integral to the Christian life. Every time we say “Our Father” we are naming the way we are saved - as a group, praying together, correcting one another, forgiving one another, stumbling along after Jesus together, memorizing and mimicking His moves until His way has become our way. Our way, our habit, our lifestyle.
Prayer is a problem for lots of modern people. The beautiful thing is that Jesus helps us to pray, gives us a prayer to say not by heart, but from the heart; not out of habit, but as a habit. You don’t have to work up some powerful inner urge to pray. You just say the words of this prayer and you are praying. Maybe this is what Paul means in part when he says that none of us really knows what to say to God. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit helps us speak.
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Rom 8: 26-27)
Often we do not know how to pray as Christians. When it comes down to it, what do we know of how to live, act, believe and feel as Christians? Fortunately for us, what we know is not the point. The point is that, as Father/Creator, Son/Redeemer and Holy Spirit/Comforter, God has searched us and known us, has helped us in our weakness, has interceded for us even when we thought we were interceding for ourselves.
So much is contained in this little prayer that Jesus taught us. So much is contained in the first tiny word of the prayer! Therefore we pray with assurance that God is Our Father, who art in heaven.