Saturday, July 28, 2007


Unpacking the Lord's Prayer (Part 4)
Exodus 16:13-18; Matthew 6:7-11

Today we continue our journey exploring what it means to pray the Lord’s Prayer. I remind you of the three things I asked you to consider as we started this series: 1) pray the prayer each day at least until we conclude the series; 2) make notes about any new understandings you have about the prayer so they can be incorporated into your prayer time; and 3) share your prayer experiences and questions with the rest of us on the sermon blog.

Just in case you haven’t been around these past weeks since we started the series, or for those of you who might have catching up on much needed sleep during the sermons, I began by saying that the opening line of the prayer – “Our Father, who art in heaven” – is a reminder that the God to whom we pray is one as close and intimate as a loving parent, but whose nature is beyond the limits of our minds to conceive. In the petition – “Hallowed be thy name” – we are reminded that all prayer is God-directed, not human need directed, and when we pray we recognize that we are called to honor and respect the name of God. Last Sunday, when we got to the petition, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” I suggested that this is the central petition of the prayer and that all of the other petitions of the prayer must be understood as part of this one petition. I also said that the fundamental meaning of “the kingdom of God” is whenever and wherever God’s will is done on earth.

That brings us to today’s petition: “Give us this day, our daily bread.” I think I am right in suggesting that for most people this has been a prayer for daily sustenance, a prayer asking God to provide us with the basic necessities of life each day. One of you told me your daughter loves this petition because she loves bread. Another of you paraphrased it as, “Give us this day, our daily Red.” Has the prayer meant something like that to you? Understood in this way, it evokes the image of God’s provision of manna for the Hebrew people wandering in the wilderness after their liberation from slavery in Egypt. There, according to the text we read from the book of Exodus this morning, God provided Quail and manna, a fine flaky bread-like substance that settled on the ground each night like dew. There was enough for each day, not enough to horde and sell on the market, just enough for each family to get through that day. Is this petition a prayer that God similarly provide just enough for us today?

If the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer for the coming of God’s reign on earth, what does this petition mean? After all, we have just been warned in Matthew's introduction to the Prayer: "In your prayers do not babble as the pagans do, for they think that by using many words they will make themselves heard. Do not be like them: your Heavenly Parent knows what you need before you ask. So you should pray like this...."

Doesn't it strike you a little strange, that just a few lines later in that prayer, we should be taught to ask for our daily needs? Besides that, this line presents a particular problem in translation. Epiousios, one of the key words -- the one translated as "daily" here – occurs not just twice in the Bible but just twice in all of Greek literature, and both of the uses are in this prayer. In the second century one of the early church fathers suggested that Jesus or the Gospel writers created the word.

How does one decide what a given word means? You look in the dictionary, right? But how do the people who write dictionaries know what a word means. They know by the way the word is used. But if you have a word that is used in just this one place in all of literature, then what do you do? What you do then is look at the different syllables of the word and try to guess what was meant, but you cannot be sure. It is usually translated "daily” suggesting a petition for meeting our need for daily sustenance. But the line may best be translated as "give us the bread of the coming day." (You may have a note in your Bible at home giving this as an alternate translation.)

In the Old and New Testament the coming of God’s reign on earth is often pictured as a great banquet with abundant food. Perhaps this is not a petition for ordinary daily sustenance as we have supposed. If the fundamental petition of the prayer is for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth, then perhaps this line means something like, "Give us today a taste of the messianic banquet," or "Give us today a taste of God’s reign on earth."

Last week I told you that my own quest to better understand this prayer began with a Lay Leader’s sermon one Sunday in Staten Island, New York. She was preaching a sermon on the Beatitudes in the 5th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, just across the page of my Bible from Lord’s Prayer in chapter 6. It is what she said about one of the Beatitudes that caught my attention: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (chapter 5, verse 6) “Righteousness” is one of those old words, like “kingdom”, which lends itself to misunderstanding. This woman used a translation – I can’t remember which one – that had this line read, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail, for they will be filled.” I don’t recall what happened next, but my mind went immediately to today’s petition of the Lord’s prayer, and I thought: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst to see God’s will done today on earth as it is in heaven, for they will be filled.” Suddenly the whole prayer had a sense of urgency that I had not experienced before.
Do you remember a time when you were a child and your mom or dad was making cookies? As the dough was mixed, you couldn’t wait to stick your finger into the bowl to get a taste even before the cookies had been formed or baked? The taste would keep us going until the cookies got out of the oven. I think Jesus wanted his followers to have such a desire to see God’s reign on earth that this petition is an urgent request for a “taste” right now in this day. We are not simply to long to see right prevail eventually, but that we be granted a foretaste today; that we be granted a taste of mercy, justice and righteousness today. Far from moving from a prayer for the kingdom to a prayer for daily food, this petition gives the prayer a sense of urgency. Try this:

"Give us today a taste of your kingdom, your reign on earth -- a hungry child being fed, a homeless family getting a home – which will help us remember that when your will is done on earth as it is in heaven hunger and homelessness will be no more.

“Give us a taste of your kingdom, your reign on earth – an abused child brought to a safe place – that will help us remember that when your will is done on earth as it is in heaven “child abuse” and “wife battering” will no longer be words in our vocabularies. Let us in THIS DAY have a taste -- and be a part of -- that which IS coming."

When this is our prayer every day, our eyes are open to see the “tastes” of goodness, mercy and justice all around us. The “tastes” will keep us going until the “cookies” are out of the oven.

Does this mean that this prayer is not a prayer for daily food? No, but I think it puts that petition in a whole new context. When we started this series of sermons, one of you sent me these words that I had seen years ago. I suspect that many of you are already familiar with the words. It goes like this:
You can’t say the Lord’s prayer in first person –
You cannot pray the Lord's Prayer and even once say "I."
You cannot pray the Lord's Prayer and even once say "My."
Nor can you pray the Lord's Prayer and not pray for one another,
And when you ask for daily bread, you must include your brother [and sister].
For others are included ... in each and every plea,
From the beginning to the end of it, it does not once say "Me."

When we pray this petition, “Give US this day, OUR daily bread,” we are praying in a world there is enough food to feed everyone, but where 854 million people are malnourished, and where 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes every day.
[1] We are praying this prayer in a nation where as many as 13 million children under the age of twelve have difficulty getting enough food for normal physical and mental development. But we are also praying this prayer in a world where the number of overfed people now almost rivals the number of underfed.[2]

What does it mean to pray this prayer to the God who is the loving parent of us all? When we pray this prayer, we are praying for God’s reign to come, that God’s will be done on earth. When we pray this petition, we are praying for just a glimpse, a taste, of that day when some of us will not eat so much that our health is threatened and when all of God’s children will be fed enough that they can grow into healthy adults, a day when senior citizens will not have to choose between food and medications or heat in the winter. When we pray this prayer, we are asking that we actually “hunger and thirst” for that day to come, and that we receive just a “taste” today of that day which is coming. And if the Beatitude from chapter 5 is right we are promised that those who have such “hunger and thirst,” and are eager for a “taste today,” will “be filled.”

I think that may be close to the meaning of the petition, "Give us this day our daily bread." We’ll never know for sure. What do you think? Keep on praying!

[1] “International Facts on Hunger and Poverty,” Bread for the World Institute. See website at l

[2] World Watch Paper # 150:” Underfed and Overfed: The Global Epidemic of Malnutrition,” 2007 World Watch Institute at

Saturday, July 21, 2007


Unpacking the Lord's Prayer (Part 3)

Isaiah 2:1-4; Luke 11:1-4; Matthew 5:10

Today we continue our conversations about praying the Lord’s Prayer – and they are turning out to be “conversations.” I am grateful for the responses you have sent about your experiences praying the prayer as well as for your reflections on some of the things I have said. Some of you said that Brother Lawrence’s idea of “practicing the presence of God” while you are doing your daily tasks opened up a new vista on the meaning of prayer. In a couple of cases, it validated something you had already discovered in your own prayer life. A couple of you wrote about the prayer and children. You can see those comments and my responses online on the blog.

Let me again ask you to do the three things I asked of you at the outset of this series: first, pray the Lord’s Prayer each day until August 19th; second, make notes during the service that you can incorporate into your prayer time; and third, continue to share your prayer experiences and questions on the sermon blog.

For many years I prayed this prayer by rote, not excited about what I thought it meant and wondering why the church prayed it so often. That all changed on one Sunday morning in a worship service I was attending at a United Methodist Church on Staten Island, New York. A laywoman was preaching that day, and her topic was “the kingdom of God.” Something she said so jarred me awake—there are a lot of ways to “sleep” in church and I think I have tried all of them—that I went home and began to do some serious study of this prayer, study that I probably should have done years before. I began to see why this prayer had been prayed so often. Thanks to the spark she provided (You’ll hear about what that spark was next Sunday) the Lord’s Prayer began to take on meaning and an urgency that I had never before sensed and that has stayed with me through the intervening years.

What I came to believe is that the petition, “Thy kingdom come,” is the very central petition of this prayer; that this prayer is a very particular, not generic, form of prayer, and that all of the petitions of the prayer must be seen in relation to this petition. If I may paraphrase Jesus’ words at the beginning of the prayer as it is found in Luke, I think this is what is intended: “Whenever you pray, pray for the realization of God’s kingdom.”

What is the “kingdom of God”? This is archaic language that sometimes gets in the way of our understanding what is being said. The “kingdom of God” means the “reign” or “rule” of God. In the past some folks have thought that the “Kingdom of God” was a piece of geography, like other kingdoms of the world. Some even thought that the “kingdom” and the “church” were the same thing. Some have thought that it would only be sometime in the future. If you look at the petition as it is in Matthew 6 and compare it with the version in Luke 11, I think you can get the idea of what is meant by “kingdom of God.” In Luke the petition is simply, “Your kingdom come,” but if you look at it in Matthew you see that it reads, “Your kingdom come,” and then is added “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Is the prayer for God’s will to be done on earth a different petition or is it a part of “thy kingdom come”? I believe that this is a translation of what in Hebrew or Aramaic was a common poetic construction called “synonymous parallelism,” in which one line (“thy kingdom come”) is restated in the second line with words that add to or clarify the meaning of the first (in this case, “thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven”). If you want a simple definition of the “kingdom of God,” it is whenever and wherever the will of God is done. The heart of this prayer is for God’s will to be done.

However, the prayer is more than for God’s will to be done; it is a prayer for God’s kingdom to come on earth. In this sense, the petition is much like a prayer that Jesus would have prayed in the synagogue, and that Jewish people continue to pray to this day. It is from the Synagogue Kaddish and it goes something like this: "May God’s kingdom be established during your life and during your days, and during the life of all the house of Israel."

To pray the Lord’s Prayer with this petition at the heart means that God cares about what happens on earth – in our families, in school, in our community, and in our world. I assume it also means God cares about what happens to the earth itself. To pray this prayer is for us to long for the realization of God's kingdom on earth: It is to long to see right prevail; to desire to see justice done in the courts, to yearn for fairness in the marketplace. We are called to make as the center of all our prayers a deep longing for the will of God to be done on earth.

This is the petition that was on Jesus’ lips at the time of his greatest temptation, when he was in the Garden of Gethsemane, waiting to be arrested: “My father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not my will, but thy will be done.” (Matthew 26:39 and 43) “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” should be the first and last petitions of every prayer we pray, no matter what our situation.

This is probably hardest petition we are asked to pray. It seems somehow easier to pray for God’s kingdom as some far off future event in a way that doesn’t affect us here and now. But to earnestly desire that God’s will be done on earth is something else. It reminds me of a story I heard about a ten-year-old boy in a revival meeting. The preacher was preaching about “heaven” and he described the gates of pearl and the streets of gold. As preachers sometimes do he got so excited about what he was saying that he shouted, “How many of you want to go to heaven?” All the people put up their hands, everybody except that ten year old boy. The preacher saw it and shouted again, “How many of you want to go to heaven?” Again, everyone but the little boy put up hands. Unnerved -- that’s what sometimes happens to preachers when people don’t respond the way they anticipate -- the preacher spoke directly to the boy: “Son, don’t you want to go to heaven?” “Sure,” responded the boy, “I just thought you were getting up a load to go today.” Sometimes we are tempted to pray, “Lord, let your will be done in my life, just not today.”

We have had a wonderful week of Vacation Church School. You got just a taste of it as you heard the kids sing. They sang songs, prayed, and played games; they also heard Bible stories and talked about what they meant. Seeing parents get their kids to experience this said to me that they wanted their kids to learn about doing God’s will on earth. Seeing all of the adults that took precious time, just when the red run might be starting, said we have adults committed to learning about doing God’s will on earth. But I must tell you, seeing our young people, from the sixth grade up, here working with the kids, teaching them; that said to me that we have young people who care about doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, and teaching it to our children. And I thank God for all of them. I hope you express your thanks to God and to them for what they did here this week.

In the morning and evening we also had adults in classes. We studied one of the most familiar of all Jesus’ stories; it was the story of the good Samaritan. (Luke 10:25-37) You remember the story, don’t you? A man was walking along the road to Jericho only to be beaten by robbers and left for dead on the side of the road. Two religious leaders came walking on the road, saw the man lying there, but passed by on the other side. A hated Samaritan came after them, saw the man, cared for him, took him to an inn, and paid for his care.

You probably remember the story, but you may not recall why Jesus told it. Jesus was teaching when an expert in the law came up and asked Jesus about how he could receive eternal life, or how he could get into God’s kingdom. The man was a religious leader, so Jesus turned the question back on him and asked him what the scripture said. The expert gave the answer that most good religious folks would have given in Jesus’ day. He quoted the Schema from the Hebrew Bible: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your minds; and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus responded that the man had answered rightly and that if he did this he would live, and he might have said “you will live in the kingdom.”

The man wasn’t satisfied. He said “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered him with the story of the good Samaritan. At the end of the story, Jesus asked the man which of the three—the two religious leaders on the road or the Samaritan—were neighbor to the man lying on the road. The man responded, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus told the man to “Go and do likewise.”

God’s kingdom is whenever and wherever someone shows mercy or acts justly. It is as simple, and as difficult, as that. When we pray this petition, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we are not only looking to the day when God’s reign will be over the earth, but we are committing ourselves to working for that day by acting with justice and mercy.

This petition involves all of the decisions we make—how we raise our kids, how we vote, how we are involved in the community, how we spend our money. If we long to see God’s will done on earth, then nothing on earth is beyond our purview, and we are accountable to God for the decisions we make. Jesus teaches us to pray for God’s will to be done on earth. We know that involves us, all of who we are, and all the resources with which we have been entrusted. Keep on praying!

Saturday, July 14, 2007


Unpacking the Lord's Prayer (Part 2)
Ezekiel 36:22-27; Luke 11:1-4

Last Sunday I began a seven-part sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer. I want to thank those of you who have offered me your experiences in praying this prayer. I asked you to pray it each day between now and August 16th when we finish the series. Several of you told me that you already pray the prayer daily and what it means to you. Last week, I said that in the opening line Jesus teaches us that the God to whom we pray is as close and intimate as a loving parent but also greater than anything our minds can conceive. Some of you said that it was important and freeing to be able to address God as “Mother” as well as “Father.” Others said that, while you didn’t believe that God was in essence “male,” you didn’t see anything wrong with restricting the terms of address to “Father” and using masculine pronouns to refer to God. One of you said you substituted “God” for “Father” when you pray the prayer to avoid the gender issue altogether.

I hope you will continue to pray the prayer each day at least until the end of the series, that you will make notes for incorporation into your prayers during the week, and that you will share your experiences and questions in praying on my sermon blog. The Internet address is in the bulletin.

One of the problems in praying this prayer is that it uses some words that we do not use very often. Today’s petition has one of them: “Hallowed be thy name.” How many times this past week did you use the word “hallow”? Do you know what it means? Two kids were discussing the prayer in a Sunday School class. One boy said he thought it meant that God’s name was “Howard” – as in “Howard be thy name.” A girl corrected him saying that it meant, “Our Father in Heaven, How did you know my name?” The fact is that neither our children nor we use “hallow” often in our conversation. The Greek word behind the English “hallow” is agiadzo and it means, “to make holy,” “to dedicate or consecrate,” or to “treat with reverence.” This petition is for God to be honored as God, the Holy One.

In the Old Testament, when the people of Israel were being held in captivity in Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel anticipated a day when the name of God would not be profaned but would be honored by the nations. The prophet made clear that the reason why God’s name had been profaned was not because of the other nations, but because of the failure of God’s own people. The word of God through the prophet was that God’s name will be honored before all the nations “when through you I display my holiness before their eyes” (36:23). So also in the Lord’s Prayer the petition is "Let your name be hallowed, or let your name be set apart from all other names by those you have created." For us to pray this petition is to acknowledge God's nature as nurturing parent as well as to accept this God's claim on our lives; it also means that we are praying for the day when God’s name will be recognized and honored by everyone everywhere.

At this point, we could have a conversation about whether or not God’s name is “hallowed” by having “in God we trust” on our money, by having the Ten Commandments on public buildings, or by having prayer in public schools. We will have that conversation, but not today. The prophet Ezekiel was not concerned about whether others “hallowed” the name of God; it was the people of God he was concerned about. And his conclusion was that it was they who profaned it. Jesus, too, was concerned about his followers hallowing the name of God, not anyone else. As people who want to see ourselves as people of God, we need to assume full responsibility in our homes and in the church to “hallow” God’s name in prayer?

How, then, does this prayer help us? “Hallowed be thy name,” is a reminder that prayer is God-centered. Prayer is not, as some suppose, having a laundry list of concerns to present as though God were a glorified bellhop. At heart, prayer is simply paying attention to God, and in paying attention we “hallow” God’s name.

Some of our Greek forefathers and foremothers in the faith in the second and third centuries believed that the starting point and the final achievement of a life of prayer was to be absolutely silent before God. In this state all the faculties of the body were completely at peace, perfectly alert yet free of any turmoil or agitation. They often used a "pond" as an image for God and the human spirit. As long as the wind is blowing and there are ripples on the water, we can't see beneath the surface. Or, when the water of the pond has been stirred, mud from the bottom makes it impossible to see. Our spirits are like the pond, they said, rippled and muddied by daily concerns and anxieties. We need to be able to relax and allow the ripples to dissipate and the sediment to settle. In such silence and stillness we are ushered into the presence of God.

Some folks treasure silence and stillness. Others are terrified by it. The Meyers Briggs Personality Typing has been a means of differentiating personality types, our differing needs and strengths. Not surprisingly, there are also different spiritual types, with different needs and strengths. Some folks desire quiet and solitude and are renewed by it. Others find their renewal in interaction with others and are uncomfortable with silence and solitude. I was powerfully reminded of this one Sunday when, in a church I once served, we received Holy Communion in silence, as someone had requested. After the service, I received a barrage of complaints from folks who didn’t like the idea of silence during communion at all. Now, that didn't mean that they didn't want to pray or to pay attention to God. It meant that they were used to and more comfortable doing it in another way. We don’t all have to pray the same way.

Nicolas Herman was born to a family in Lorraine, France in the early part of the seventeenth century (about 1611). In his youth he became a soldier but was forced to abandon that career when he got a wound that really made him unsuitable as a soldier. By most accounts, he was a simple and uneducated man. For a while he served as a footman for a carriage driver. Because he had been brought up in an actively Christian family, he eventually entered a monastery and became a Carmelite monk.

That seemed to be a good decision. His heart was full of faith. Because of his lack of education, he was not assigned to work in the scriptorium (the large room where other monks meticulously copied old manuscripts of scripture and other ancient texts). He was not assigned to work in the choir because he had no training in music and his voice was not outstanding. He was in fact given what was considered one of the most menial of jobs in the monastery, and that was in the kitchen. He was a cook's helper. Day after day, year after year, he cut vegetables and washed pots. He didn't complain. In fact, those tasks suited him perfectly. He loved his work in the kitchen and he loved the time everyday when he got to go there for his work.

What he didn't relish, however, were the seven times during the day and night when the monks gathered for "the liturgy of the hours." In these times of structured prayer he found himself unable to pray effectively. He fidgeted through the readings, the chants, and the prayers. Since in the eyes of many, this kind of prayer was what monks were supposed to do, his disposition seemed just another indication that he didn't fit into the usual monastic life.

That experience didn't dim Nicholas' faith. In fact, it seemed to push him in another direction. When he would go to his tasks in the kitchen -- cutting the vegetables or scrubbing the floor -- he began to practice placing himself in God's presence as he did his tasks. As his practice became habit, he found that the distinction between time designated for "work" and time designated for "prayer" became blurred. In fact, Nicholas claimed "he was more united to God in his ordinary activities than when he devoted himself to religious activities which left him with a profound spiritual dryness."

It was out of this utterly ordinary set of circumstances that came a life of profound holiness, making the mundane activities of daily life avenues into the presence of God. Of course, we don't remember him as Nicholas Herman, but as Brother Lawrence.
[3] His little book, The Practice of the Presence of God, is actually no more than four transcribed conversations and letters. But that little book, from a person with a heart so full of faith and devotion, became a spiritual classic that has captivated Protestants and Catholics alike for over three centuries. So short that it can -- but never should -- be read in a single setting, this friar offered a deceptively simple form of prayer called "practicing the presence of God."

What Brother Lawrence recognized was that we can pray or "pay attention to God" anytime: while we are changing the baby's diapers, while we are doing accounts, while we are doing our homework, or whatever. The effort of thinking of God frequently throughout the day may at first appear easy. It is not, and it may even feel laborious and artificial. If it is to become a habit, it is something for which we have to train ourselves. And Brother Lawrence's way is doubtless not suitable for everybody. Some may need more structure -- a place, a time, and a form. Some need silence, away from the banging of pots and pans. Brother Lawrence was concerned that the desire to be in the presence of God not be a cause for anxiety. He was convinced that sincere efforts on our part are eventually met by gracious invitations from God. If we struggle to approach God, he said, God comes running to us, and what began as a deliberate act of the will on our part ends as an effortless delight.

Whether in times of quiet and solitude, or in the very midst of our daily tasks, when our attitude of prayer is to practice the presence of God, the Spirit will work through us to hallow God’s name. We will be anticipating the time when all people hallow the name of God. And when at home or at church we teach our children to do the same, we do not have to worry about what anyone else or any other institution does. Keep on praying!

[1] Anthony Bloom From Living Prayer, quoted in Rueben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck's A Guide to Prayer (Nashville: The Upper Room, 1983) pp. 308-309.

[2] Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, The Practice of the Presence of God, trans. John J. Delaney (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image Books, 1977), p. 47.

[3] Robin Maas and Gavriel O'Donnell, eds, Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church, (Nashville:Abingdon Press, 1990), p. 260.

Saturday, July 7, 2007


Unpacking the Lord's Prayer (part 1)

Psalm 100; Matthew 6:5-13

What does it mean to “pray”? If you look in a dictionary you will likely find something like this: “to address God in word or thought.” Jesus felt that prayer was of such importance that his followers needed to be trained in it. On one occasion (in Luke 11:1), when Jesus was praying, one of his followers asked him to teach them to pray. Jesus responded by teaching them what has come to be called "The Lord's Prayer." In the Gospel of Matthew, (in 6:5-13) Jesus warned about the abuse of prayer and concluded by teaching them what we what was read today.

Jesus warned about hypocrites who pray in the synagogues and in the streets in order to receive the praise of others. The problem is not praying in synagogues or on street corners, but rather doing it to receive praise for doing it. Here Jesus is not saying something that most other rabbis of his day would not have said as well. Jesus also cautioned against “heaping up empty phrases” thinking that God would pay more attention if we are long-winded. “Don’t do that,” said Jesus; “God already knows what you need before you ask.” Then he instructed them.

Today, we begin a seven-part series of sermons on “Unpacking the Lord’s Prayer.” Those of you who have downloaded programs on your computer will know that sometimes the programs come in as compressed files because there is so much data in the program. Once downloaded to your computer they have to be “unpacked” before your computer can use them. I have a sense that the Lord’s Prayer is like a file that remains compressed in many of our spiritual lives and not usable. If we can unpack it we may discover that it means things and sustains us in ways we never before imagined.

I have a couple of special requests to make of you as we go through this series. Before we get to those, let me ask you: Did it seem at all strange when we read the Lord's Prayer from the scriptures? I am not suggesting that any such feelings might be caused by unfamiliarity with the prayer. We probably do not have a situation here like the two guys who were talking and one of them made a comment about prayer. The other scoffed: "If you're so religious, let's hear you say the Lord's Prayer. I bet you ten dollars you don't know it." His friend responded, "Yes I do: 'Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep'." The other friend said, "Wow! I didn't think you knew it!" and handed him a ten dollar bill. Our problem is not unfamiliarity; it might be because we are so familiar with the prayer that we don’t think much about it when we say it.

As long as I can remember, even when I was a child, I was puzzled about why this prayer was prayed so often in worship. Being told that it was a “model” prayer was not very satisfying since there are certain elements of prayer that do not seem to be included -- thanksgiving, for one, and intercessions for others, for another. When I was older, I learned that the meaning of several of the petitions may not be as clear as I had first thought. The translation of one of the petitions is only a guess. These matters become especially significant if we are to take it as a model for all our prayers. For a long time, it has seemed to me like a very particular prayer, for a particular -- not a general -- purpose. And if it is a particular kind of prayer, how did it get its central place in the Gospels, and why has it been -- through history -- the most consistently used element in Christian worship?

The primary purpose of this series of sermons is not to give you new information about this prayer – although I hope to do that; the primary purpose is to assist you in praying generally and in the praying of this prayer in particular. To that end, I have several requests to make of you. First, I would like to ask that you pray this prayer at least once a day between now and August 16th when we conclude the series. Second, I would like to suggest that you make notes each Sunday on the meaning of the petition we are examining—use the white space on the bulletin where you usually doodle—and then during the week try praying the petitions in a variety of ways using your own words. Third, I invite you to share your comments on the sermons on my blog where each of the sermons will be posted weekly. Share your prayer experiences and questions there so others may benefit. You may make your comments anonymously. I will try to respond to the questions in the sermons.

Our task this morning is to ask about the God to whom we pray this prayer. What does it mean to pray to God as “Our Father”? In the first century both Jews and Gentiles frequently addressed God as “Father.” The common practice in the synagogue was to address God as “our Father, our King.” Jesus adapts the address simply to “Father.” The Aramaic term “Abba” is translated as “Father”. The meaning is a child’s term of endearment like “Daddy,” “Mommy,” or “Da-da.” It is also a term that adults may use in addressing their fathers. This is the term Jesus used for his own personal relationship with God. For Jesus, “Father” was not a general term for God but one specifically meaning his own relation to God. Jesus did not reserve it for himself but also included others—“When you pray, say ‘Our Father.’” As children of God, we are “brothers” and “sisters,” not only of each other but also of Jesus, sharing his personal relationship with God. God as “Father” means one who loves, one who forgives, and one who knows how to give children good gifts.

Does the use of the term “Father” mean that God is male? If our spiritual ancestors, the Hebrew people in the Middle East, and their ancestors, had prayed this prayer before 5,000 B.C., the term of address would probably have been "Mother." But by 3,000 B.C. in the Middle East, matriarchal cultures had become patriarchal ones, so that the faith shaped and articulated by the Judeo-Christian tradition tended to be in patriarchal terms. Does this mean that God is male, or was it that “Father” was simply the way God could be understood in that culture? Is the God to whom we pray gender-inclusive or gender-specific?

A few years ago a great brouhaha erupted over the references to God as "Sofia" at an ecumenical convocation of women in Minneapolis. Sophia was the name of a goddess in some Gnostic religions in the first century, but “Sophia” is also the Greek word for the portrayal of God as “Wisdom” in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs, the Song of Solomon and other places. In the Greek language nouns are masculine, feminine or neuter. Sophia is feminine, as is the word in Hebrew from which it is translated. The word for “Wisdom” as an image of God in the Bible is thus feminine, as is the word for “Spirit.” I suspect that the controversy in Minneapolis had more to do with attributing feminine characteristics to God rather than any pagan associations with the word. At one of the meetings, a bishop – not a United Methodist bishop, I might add -- was heard to exclaim, "To call God ‘Mother’ is to make God a sexual being." Now that particular bishop had children. I would like to have asked him, "Are not fathers also sexual beings? Bishop, where do babies really come from?"

While “Father” was the most common image for Jesus, he and Biblical writers used other images that portray God in feminine terms beyond “Wisdom” and “Spirit,” such as a Mother Eagle, a Mother Hen, a Baker Woman, and many more. Have we not come to a time when we can use feminine terms to refer to God? I think the point in this prayer is that God is addressed as a caring and nurturing parent. When you pray this prayer this week, you might try praying “Our Mother,” some of the time or “Our Father and Mother.” For some it will mean praying with loving parents as models; for others it will mean using language for the kind of parents they never had and for whom the very images are painful. In the case of the latter, it will be praying to God who is like a parent you longed for but never had.

We pray not only to a caring and nurturing parent, but we also to pray to “Our Father in heaven.” The phrase "in heaven" makes an important counter-point to the intimacy and familiarity suggested by “Our Father.” In the Old Testament “heaven” not only meant the sky it also meant that which was beyond the physical heavens, beyond the moon, sun and stars. Heaven was the abode of God. As Solomon acknowledged in his prayer dedicating the Temple in Jerusalem, “the heavens and heaven of heavens cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built.” (1 Kings 8:27) In Christian theology “heaven” is the dwelling place of God and ultimately of all the redeemed. To say that God is “in heaven” is a reminder that God is beyond and greater than all our ideas and conceptions. We can no more comprehend the magnitude of God than we can comprehend the magnitude of infinite space. God is not one we can put in our pockets, restrict to a shrine, or contain within the walls of a church, but the God who is in heaven, a God beyond what we can conceive. Jesus teaches us to address God who is as close and as caring as a parent, but not one we can manipulate or contain within the limits of our minds.

When we pray this prayer to this God, there is power. Barb Jones, a Regional Minister (sort of like our “District Superintendent”) in the Disciples of Christ Church in Arkansas, tells about a time in seminary when things were going really badly for her family. She went to the dean, who happened to be an Episcopalian, shared her story and asked him to pray for her. He said, "Sure. Let's say the Lord's Prayer." And the two of them bowed their heads and recited the familiar prayer. After the Amen, Barb looked at the dean with a puzzled look as if to say, "Is that it?" She had expected him to pray specifically about the concerns she had just shared with him.

Then the dean said, "You don't get it, do you?" And Barb admitted that she didn't. The dean then explained his belief about the power of that particular prayer. He said, "In saying the Lord's Prayer we are saying the most powerful prayer known to humankind. That prayer has been prayed continuously since the days of the early church. People all around our world have prayed that same prayer day and night for two thousand years. And when we pray it, we connect ourselves to all believers everywhere and in all time. We pull together the collective power of all those prayers." Barb said she left feeling that she had really been prayed for.

I have often prayed this prayer with persons who were dying. Sometimes, even when they were unresponsive to everything else that was said, when I began to say the Lord’s Prayer, their lips would move and you could hear them repeating the words—this sometimes after days when it seemed they no longer had the ability to speak. There is something special in praying this prayer. It is not magic; it is the power of God in praying a prayer, as the dean said, that connects us to all believers everywhere and in all time.

As you pray this prayer this week let your attention linger on the words of address, “Our Father, who art in heaven,” and think about the God you are addressing. Give thanks to God, creator and sustainer of a vast universe beyond the farthest reaches of our minds, yet who is as close as a caring Father or Mother. To pray “Our Father” is to acknowledge that all of us are brothers and sisters, not just Christians but all people everywhere. Whether you are facing the routine tasks of the day, or life and death issues, this prayer is for you. Pray it in faith and confidence.