Wednesday, August 29, 2007


On September 2nd, I will begin a sermon series on the Ten Commandments. What’s your first response? Be honest. Is it “This is a great opportunity to learn more about the commandments?” Or, is it, “Is this ever going to be a downer? He’s going to be talking about how bad we are?” Or is it, “Oh good, he’s going to lay it on the line about bad people?”

There is no question but that the mention of the Ten Commandments generates all kinds of different responses, from jokes to adamant defense. Despite the fact that it is unlikely that many Christians can actually recite them, and even fewer recite them in the order they appear in Exodus 20 or in Deuteronomy 5, the Ten Commandments have always been regarded as a core expression of our faith, much the same as the Lord’s Prayer.

Over the next weeks we will consider each of the commandments. We will try to understand what they meant in their own time and what they might mean for us in ours. Were the commandments important to Jesus? As Christians, are we obliged to obey them? Some have concluded that the commandments are out-dated and are no longer binding on us today. You may be surprised to find yourself in that category on some of them. If you stay with me through this series you will not only learn the commandments in a way that you won’t soon forget, but you may decide that they have something to say about your life here and now. At least, that is my hope. As we go through these weeks, I welcome your comments and questions on the blog. I will try to respond to questions in the sermons.

A question you might already have is this: “Didn’t all of the cultures and religions of the ancient world have laws like those in the Ten Commandments?” The answer is “No.” In his book, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, Thomas Cahill rightly observes: “There is no document in all the literatures of the world that is like the Ten Commandments. Of course, there are ethical guidelines from other cultures. But these are always offered in a legal framework (if you do that, then this will be the consequence) or as worldly-wise advice (if you want to lead a happy life, you will be sure to do such-and-such and avoid so-and-so).”[1]

That many people have taken the commandments as laws like other laws they have known is understandable, but the Ten Commandments are not just “Law;” they are also “Grace.” One of the ways Christians have most consistently misunderstood the commandments is the way we have often misunderstood the Hebrew Bible, what we call the “Old Testament.” Many of us were brought up to believe that the God of the Old Testament is a God of “Law,” while the God of Jesus and the New Testament is a God of “Love,” or a God of “Grace.” That’s been a temptation to which Christians have often succumbed to set themselves apart from our Jewish heritage. If the commandments are to have anything positive to say to us in our time, I think we will have to rediscover how the commandments are as much about “grace” as about “law.”

You've probably heard the expression: Justice is getting what we deserve. Mercy is not getting what we deserve. Grace is getting what we don't deserve. That word of “grace” is the very first word in the commandments: "Then God spoke all these words. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." Just a few years before these words were spoken, the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt. They had no identity and they had no hope. But through Moses, God freed them. Now they were in the wilderness at the foot of Mount Sinai. God calls Moses up on the mountain and gives him the commandments. But before the actual commandments are given to the people, there is a word about the God who is giving them. These “laws” are not simply the requirements of a whimsical superior who demands loyalty just because she or he is bigger and more powerful. They are the commandments of a God who has saved a "nobody" people from slavery. They are the commandments of a God who loved and cared for this people before they could do anything on their own. Those opening words tell us who this God is and who we are. The commandments are given out of the loving grace of God, not the capricious whim of an absent sovereign. We are to obey the commandments out of gratitude for the grace of God who loved us enough to save us from certain destruction and who now gives us a framework for full and creative living.

I am looking forward to thinking with you about these fundamental elements of faithful living. I hope you are too.
[1] Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York: Nan A. Talese/Anchor Books Doubleday, 1998) p. 140.

Saturday, August 25, 2007


Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; II Timothy 4:9-22; Luke 14:15-24

"For everything there is a season," said the writer of Ecclesiastes, "and a time for every matter under heaven." (Ecc. 3:1) Living in Alaska after living in Oregon for six years, I am reminded that folks here may have special insight into the words of the writer of Ecclesiastes. Those who read the fireweed have seen the signs that winter is coming. There are even a few patches of yellow where only a few days ago it was all green. If they haven’t already, the geese that are not permanent residents will have completed their practice flights and head south. These are nature’s signals that the seasons are changing. On Friday when I was at the barbershop in Eagle River—and yes, I do need occasional visits to such establishments—I listened to the barber say that in these days she doesn’t look up at the mountains when she commutes back and forth to Anchorage; she doesn’t want catch a glimpse of the first “termination dust.” And, of course, there are other signals, most notably the beginning of school this past week.

Some have been scurrying to get fish for the winter and are ready to do the same with moose and caribou. Others have lists of tasks to complete before snow and temperatures make them difficult if not impossible. A pastor friend of mine who served a number of years here in the Great Land dubbed the summer as Alaska’s “Manic Season.” Some welcome the change in season as much as others are anxious about it. Whether welcome or anxious, even in the face of the uncertainty of what warming will mean for this winter, we know that winter is coming.

I think we in Alaska may not only have special insight to bring to today’s text from Ecclesiastes, but also to the words we read from Paul’s second letter to Timothy, especially in its references to winter. Many scholars doubt that Paul actually wrote the first and second letters of Timothy. They seem to reflect a later time in the life of the church than during the life of Paul. Few, though, doubt that the two letters include fragments of actual letters of Paul and the passage we read today seems to be at least part of one he wrote to Timothy.

Paul wrote these lines from his prison cell in Rome where he was awaiting final judgment by the Roman supreme tribunal, perhaps even Caesar himself. Paul does not expect to live much longer. before he closes, he has a special request of Timothy, his son in the faith and perhaps his closest friend. This is not a letter of instruction to a church, but a personal plea to a trusted friend: “Do your best to come to me soon… When you come, bring the cloak that I Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.... Do your best to come before winter...."

Why come "before winter?" Although we are not certain where Timothy was when he received this request, we may assume that it was not too far from Troas where he was supposed to pick up Paul's coat. Troas is in present day Turkey, about 1,200 miles by boat from Rome. Twelve hundred miles is a long journey, especially in the first century. A twelve hundred-mile voyage on the Mediterranean Sea was perilous anytime, but in the winter, such voyages became unthinkable. Traffic ceased in the fall and did not resume again until the next spring. Paul's request to "come before winter" means that if Timothy didn't come in the fall, he wouldn't be able to come for another six months. The tone of Paul's letter is that he wouldn’t be alive when the spring came.

One of the realities of life is that there are times or seasons in which some things must be done, if they are to be done at all. I'm speaking about more than winterizing the car and getting the furnace checked.

I was seventeen and in my first year at Texas Wesleyan College when I received a note from Mrs. Jeter. Mrs. Jeter was the mother of my first girl friend when I was in the ninth grade. The relationship with the girl friend didn't last too long, but my relationship with her parents did. That seemed to be the case with a several of my girl friends. It had been three years since I had seen or heard from Mr. and Mrs. Jeter. Mrs. Jeter’s note said she had heard that I had decided to enter the ministry and that she wanted to offer her congratulations. She also told me that she was seriously ill. I was pleased to hear from her but distressed to learn about her illness. "I'll write her right away," I told myself. A week went by, then two, then a month. One Sunday afternoon I sat down and wrote a letter to her, telling her how much I had appreciated her friendship and her confidence in me. I didn't know what to say about her illness. "I'll finish it tomorrow," I told myself. Two days later I learned that she had died about the time I was writing the note. There are some things that have to be done before winter, or not done at all.

Perhaps it was that experience that -- 25 years later -- when I learned that my father had been diagnosed with colon cancer and was to undergo surgery that I quickly rearranged my schedule and went to Texas to be with him. I arrived the day before his surgery. It was to be a fairly routine procedure, but Dad had a feeling that he would not come through it. Since my dad had talked about dying for as long as I could remember, I wasn’t sure how seriously to take what he said. It had gotten to be a kind of standard way of saying goodbye after a visit, “Well son, I don’t know if I will still be here when you get back.” I think it is something parents are tempted to do to generate a little guilt in their grown children who live away from them.

But I stayed at the hospital and we literally talked all night. Even though I didn't really believe there would be any problems, I said all of the things I wanted to say to him. We talked about death, even the funeral service he wanted. But we also talked about what we would do when he recovered from the surgery, and how we would have a family reunion next summer at the annual rodeo in Clarendon. When he was in recovery the next day, something happened. He just didn't come out of the anesthesia. Instead, he went into a coma. He died two weeks later without ever regaining consciousness. It was just a freak thing that sometimes happens. But that night together was a gift for which I will ever be grateful.

I had some hesitancy in telling you about these two experiences. Some of us -- perhaps most of us -- are hounded by guilt about things left undone, obligations left unfulfilled, opportunities missed. We have trouble accepting the fact that we cannot do all those things we would like or feel we ought. But this sermon is not meant to engender guilt.

We can never be fully prepared for our relationships with others to end, or for other opportunities that we miss. There will be times when we wished we had acted sooner. There will be times we did act and be grateful. Life is like that. Many of our choices about the use of our time and energy are not choices between the important and the unimportant, but between the important and the essential. Timothy had to decide between the important and the essential. He doubtless had many obligations and opportunities where he was when he received Paul's letter. He chose what he believed to be essential. He apparently got to Rome before winter, was able to be with Paul in his last days, and was able to assist Paul in writing at least three important letters in the Bible: Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. And for that we, too, are forever in his debt.

Although our text doesn't do so directly, we are reminded that we do not have unlimited opportunities for decisions about making changes in our personal lives or in our relationships with God. This may seem to be at odds with the good news of the gospel that the future is open, and that at any moment we can begin to live a new life. But although God is always with us, we can put ourselves in a place where God cannot reach us.

In the Gospel text read this morning, Jesus told a parable about how God’s grace is like the invitation to a great banquet. God’s love and forgiveness are available to all. Somehow, though, some of those who were invited found other things more important to do first. One had bought some property and said he had to go see it. Another had just bought five yoke of oxen and had to go try them out. And another had just gotten married and so declined the gracious invitation. The hard truth about the parable is those who declined the invitation failed to distinguish between what was merely “important” in their lives for what was “essential.” The parable doesn’t suggest that God’s offer of grace is ever withdrawn, but it suggests that we can put other concerns first for so long that we put ourselves beyond the reach of God’s love and grace.

When I was a pastor in Juneau, one of the members of our church introduced Connie and me to a neighbor of hers, a young man with AIDS. The first time we met John he told us that he was going to die and that he wanted to do something about his relationship with God, something he said he had put off during his earlier life. He was all of about twenty-five. He wanted to know about God. He wanted to know how to pray. Most of all, he wanted to know how to die. Over the weeks and months that we talked and prayed with John, he sometimes said that he wished he had started this process years before. But in those months John did -- in the apostle Paul's words -- "work out his own salvation." When the end came, he was ready.

With everything else we have to do, it seems easy to put off time for reflection, prayer or Bible study. John had the reality of AIDS to give him a new sense of priorities in his life. We may not have such clear signals to help us distinguish between the "important" and the "essential" in our lives. But Paul's plea to Timothy can be our reminder that there are some things that, if they are to be done at all, must be done before winter.

There may be a phone call you want to make this afternoon, or a letter you have been intending to write. Do it. There may be things that you want to do to make this world a better place. Don't put them off. There may be a decision about your spiritual life that you’ve been postponing. Make it.

We will never do all the things we hoped to do. Perhaps the most important words of this text are "Do your best...” These may be the words with which you send your child off to school each day. Paul repeats them twice: "Do your best to come to me soon," and "Do your best to come before winter." God does not expect of us things we cannot do. Nor should we expect of ourselves things we can’t do, so don’t go away from here this morning feeling guilty about things you didn’t do in the past. The past is gone and we don’t know what the future will bring. All we have is the present and it is a gift; that’s why we call it the “present.” God expects us to "do our best" in the present. And when we do our best, God will take care of the rest.

Perhaps our prayer today might be in the words of Marijohn Wilkin who wrote a country gospel song with title, “One Day at a Time:”
"Yesterday's gone sweet Jesus, and tomorrow may never be mine. Lord help me today, show me the way one day at a time."

Saturday, August 18, 2007


Unpacking the Lord's Prayer (Part 7)

Revelation 1:4-8; Matthew 6:8-13 (KJV)

Today we conclude this series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer. With the end of the series I hope you have not finished praying or learning about this prayer. Before we come to the conclusion, let’s take a few minutes to see where we have been since July 21 when we started. We began with the recognition that the Lord’s Prayer is the single most used element in Christian worship, and we asked why that was the case. What is it that is so special about this prayer that one may safely assume that at any one moment in time someone or some congregation somewhere is praying it? You will have to decide if what I have suggested over these weeks answers that question and, more importantly, if what I have said has shed any light on the meaning of the prayer for you.

On the first Sunday we looked at the God to whom Jesus asked his followers to pray: “Our Father, who art in heaven.” I suggested that the word “father” and “in heaven” are both keys to understanding. First, Jesus used the intimate term for “father,” which may be best translated “Daddy,” and that we are invited to pray to God as a loving, caring parent. Second, “in heaven” reminds us that this is a God beyond the limits of our minds to conceive. I cautioned about restricting the idea of God as being “male.” God in heaven, is surely beyond our categories of gender, and that we should be open to addressing God in feminine as well as masculine terms.

In the second week, we considered the petition, “Hallowed be thy name.” This petition is a reminder that prayer is God-centered. At heart, prayer is simply paying attention to God, and in paying attention we “hallow” God’s name. We talked about Brother Lawrence “practicing the presence of God” as a way to pay attention to God no matter what we are doing.

On the third Sunday of the series we came to what I suggested is the central petition of the prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” God’s kingdom, we remembered, is not a piece of geography, or an institution, or something that is in the distant future. The kingdom of God is whenever and wherever God’s will is done on earth. This should be the first and last of all our petitions in all conditions, even as it was for Jesus on the night of his arrest: “not my will but your will be done.” All of the petitions of this prayer are to be interpreted in the light of this single petition.

When we came to “Give us this day our daily bread” we recognized the difficulties in the translation. Nonetheless, we recognized that this is not a prayer for “my” daily bread, but for “our” (all of God’s children’s) daily sustenance. I also suggested that the petition may be more than that; it may be a prayer for “a taste today” of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

Then, we came to the petition for the forgiveness of our sins. We acknowledged that the Presbyterians are probably right, that the original words Jesus used were “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” We said that “debts” and “trespasses” are simply two different ways of talking about “sin.” We said that God’s love and willingness to forgive are never ending. At the same time, asking God to forgive us while we are unwilling to forgive those who have wronged us is simply unthinkable. As we are forgiven, so are we to forgive.

Last Sunday, we came to perhaps the hardest of the petitions, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” I suggested that it may be the hardest, not because we don’t understand it but because it is not pleasant to think about “temptation” and “evil.” “Lead us not” I suggested is not an accurate translation because God does not tempt us. The more accurate translation is “Bring us not” or “Allow us not” to be in a situation of such great temptation or trial that we are in danger of losing our faith. This petition, I said, reminds us to take “evil” seriously, or as Professor Jose Miguez Bonino said, “Call it whatever best suits your ideology. Just don’t trivialize it by considering it mere human weakness.”

There remains one last line in the prayer as we pray it, “For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.” Have you noticed that line is not in the prayer in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke as we have read them over the past weeks? When the earliest English translations of the Bible were done (like the King James Version translated in 1611) the earliest manuscripts of the books of the New Testament were from the seventh century, meaning that they were copies, of copies, of copies, of copies, of copies, etc. Since the seventeenth century, earlier manuscripts of the books of the New Testament have been discovered, some dating to the second century. That still means that they are copies of copies of copies, but not nearly so many times far removed from the originals as those used by the scholars translating the King James Version. In the manuscripts those scholars worked with, mostly Latin versions of the Greek, this conclusion to the prayer was present, but in the earliest manuscripts it is not.

If this was not in the prayer as Jesus taught it, where did it come from? The words appear to be based on David’s prayer in 1 Chronicles 29:11: “Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all.” While this concluding doxology was probably not a part of the prayer as Jesus taught it, it is not a distortion of the prayer.

When we have hungered for a taste today of God’s will being done on earth, we are given the great assurance – “THINE is the kingdom.” Our prayer is not futile because it is God’s kingdom, not ours. If we seek the taste today it will be granted.

When we have confessed our guilt for debts and transgressions that we can never make good, this prayer takes us into the radiance of God – “THINE is the glory” -- where the shadows are dispelled. Our life has not been wasted. Nothing is irrevocably past and gone. God can forgive our sin, remove our guilt, and enable us to forgive others.

When we are overcome by the fear of temptation, when we realize we can’t stand up under the pressure, this prayer leads us into the presence of One who can help us – “THINE is the power”. Once we have experienced it we don’t have to remain prostrate in our defeats, but rise from them to new lives.

We are not talking easy answers here. This prayer is a song of resistance, not a song of conformity. In the sixteenth chapter of the Book of Acts there is a story about how when Paul and Silas went to Philippi in Macedonia, they were arrested, tortured, and thrown into prison. As they lay there in their chains, they prayed and at midnight, we are told, they praised God (Acts 16:25). Why did they praise God in prison, of all places, and in the darkest hours of the night, of all times? They did it because they found God there in their dark cell; because God was with them; because they felt the joy of God’s presence more vividly than the chains on their ankles.

In the 17th century Marie Durand, with other French Protestant Christians, was locked up in a tower for thirty-seven years. Every day she refused to deny her faith, which would have won her freedom. She etched just one single little word into the wall of the cell next to the window through which she was able to look out onto the free world: it was the word "Résistez" - resist! How was she able to resist? Because daily she praised the God whose nearness and warmth kept her spirit strong.

What do we have to resist? If we hunger and thirst to see God’s will done on earth, then there are issues we will be called to resist. That we don’t all agree on these issues is irrelevant. We have to act out of our own faith perspectives. At a more personal level, perhaps we are chained to alcohol, drugs, or other self-abusive habits. Perhaps we feel “imprisoned” facing debilitating or terminal illnesses. Perhaps we feel “chained” to personal or professional situations where we don’t belong.
Despite the seriousness of all these conditions, resisting self-pity may be our biggest challenge. This danger is far more subtle, but no less real. Someone has said that the terminal illness of our day is, “It’s All About Me.” Some choose to see only their difficulties. “No one else suffers like I do.” That is surely just as much a prison as that of Paul and Silas and Marie Durand. “It’s All About Me” is about more than self-pity; it is also about pride. We pray this prayer in a world where people and powers make gods out of themselves: “Mine is the kingdom, and mine is the power, and the glory belongs to no one but me.”

Whether about self-pity or pride, through the Lord’s Prayer God can lift us above that deadly syndrome. In this we are taught not to pray to “my” but “our” Heavenly Parent. We are taught to pray not for “my” but “our” daily bread. We are taught to pray not for the forgiveness just of “my” sins, but “our” sins, and to forgive those who have wronged not just “me” but “us.” And for being rescued from the “evil one,” we are taught not to pray for “me,” but for “us.” This prayer speaks directly to our great need today, to resist the “It’s all about me” syndrome. When we pray this prayer with “our” instead of “me” we will be able to resist. We can pray with confidence because the kingdom for which we long and for which we labor is GOD'S kingdom, and is brought about by GOD'S power, and the glory is GOD'S glory. Or, as the writer of the Book of Revelation put it, “’I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Revelation 1:8)

Those of you who have dutifully prayed this prayer each day during this series are now released from your assignment. Now, you will have to decide for yourself when and under what circumstances you will pray the prayer. Keep praying!

Saturday, August 11, 2007


Unpacking the Lord's Prayer (Part 6)

Matthew 6:13; 26:36-42; James 1:12-16

Next Sunday we will conclude this sermon series on “Praying the Lord’s Prayer.” If you have questions about the prayer you haven’t asked, I hope you’ll post them on the blog. I am grateful for those of you who have shared your prayer experiences.

Two weeks ago, I suggested that the prayer for daily bread is not only a prayer for daily sustenance for ourselves but a plea for a “taste today” of the day when God’s will is done on earth and all people have enough to eat. Last week, I suggested that we are being taught to pray “daily” for the forgiveness of our sins and to forgive those who have wronged us, especially so that our guilt and hurt will not be obstacles to God’s will being done on earth.

This brings us to today’s petition, which is also connected to the prayer for daily bread and forgiveness by the conjunction “and.” When we pray the prayer, we say: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:13) You have doubtless noticed the difference between the way we say the prayer and the way it is in Matthew: “And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” In the shorter version in the Gospel of Luke, the petition is simply, “And do not bring us to the time of trial.” (11:4)

This petition may be the most difficult for us, not because it is so hard to understand but because we may be reluctant to think about “temptation” and “evil.” Let’s look at the two parts of this petition.

First, what does it mean to ask God to “lead us not into temptation”? Does God ever tempt us? In the passage we read this morning from the book of James, the writer may well have been speaking to some Christians who he believed misunderstood this petition of the Lord’s Prayer. He began by saying that anyone who endured temptation was blessed, but he rejected the idea that God tempts us: “God cannot be tempted by evil and [God] tempts no one.” He went on to say that we are tempted by our own desires. “Do not be deceived,” he concluded, presumably speaking about our tendency to blame God or others for our temptations. James would probably agree with that person who has said, “Lead us not into temptation. Just tell us where it is, and we will find it.”

But why are we instructed to pray that we not be led into temptation? The prayer as we pray it says, “Lead us not.” That is based on a later Latin translation, and not on the original text that actually says, “Bring us not” or “Allow us not.” When Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane on the night he was arrested, he wanted the comfort and support of three of his closest disciples—Peter, James and John. He asked them to stay awake with him while he prayed. He went a few steps on fell to the ground and prayed that most difficult of all prayers: “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” He returned to the disciples and found them asleep. He couldn’t believe it—“Could you not stay awake with me one hour?” Then, he asked them again to stay awake and “pray that you may not come into the time of trial [or temptation].” Perhaps he meant the time of trial he himself was undergoing? Maybe he also meant that their time of trial right then was the danger of falling asleep when he needed them to be present to him. In either case, he is not talking about their “being led” into temptation, but he asks them to pray that they not “come into” temptation, or the time of trial. Do you see the difference?

We will come back to this first half of the petition, but let’s go now to the second half, “deliver us from evil.” As the actual text in the Bible makes clear, Jesus was not talking about “evil” generally, but “the evil one.” This is where some of us get uncomfortable. Most of us are reluctant to think of evil as personified in Satan or as the Devil, yet this recognition of the autonomous power of personified evil is part of the Lord’s Prayer. I think we are right to be cautious about attributing evil to Satan or the Devil because most often in human history such attributions have been for very human acts of evil, sometimes with the plea, “the Devil made me do it.”

Reinhold Neibuhr, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century who was called a “realistic” theologian in part because he was such a careful social historian, defined “evil” the way that you found it in Centering section of today’s bulletin:

“Evil is always the assertion of some self-interest without regard for the whole, whether the whole be conceived of the immediate community, or the total community of humanity, or the total order of the world. The good is, on the other hand, always the harmony of the whole on various levels.”

Neibuhr’s seriousness about “evil” was born out of the horrors of World War I and II. He was quite explicit in his definition of “evil” in very human terms. Neibuhr was fond of saying, “the one Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable [that is, “provable”] is the doctrine of sin.” Or, as the old comic strip character Pogo put it, “We have met the enemy and they is us.” But Neibuhr did not reduce all evil to human actions. There is more to evil than we can readily explain, he said. He put his finger on it when he said that the phenomenon of evil in the world is inadequately explained as simply the sum total of the individual evil acts of people.

That judgment is echoed by Professor Jose Miguez Bonino who until he recently retired was pastor of two small Methodist churches in one of the poorest sections of Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is also one of the world’s foremost theologians. Professor Miguez has said that the Gospels portray the ministry of Jesus as a conflict, as a battle against the power of evil, or Satan. “Call it whatever best suits your ideology,” he said, “but don’t trivialize the struggle by considering it merely human weakness.”
[1] Miguez says that this struggle is not fought outside history in some distant cosmos, but within ourselves and in the concrete issues we face in this world – in our interpersonal relationships, in our homes and communities, in social and political issues, and in how we vote at the ballot box. If we take seriously the concern of the Lord’s Prayer for God’s will to be done on earth, then this petition means that we are to be involved in just such issues.

So where have we come with this petition of the Lord’s Prayer? First, Jesus teaches us that we are to pray not to succumb to the temptations that will surely come. Second, Jesus teaches us to pray for deliverance from the power of evil. I think the connection between the two lines of this petition is that “ordinary” temptations are not petty or insignificant, but are manifestations of the ultimate power of evil. We are not to take them lightly. We are to view them as threats to faith and to pray for God’s deliverance from them.

Maybe there are two classes of temptations, or perhaps two levels. The first level we might call the “ordinary.” What would be on your list? Consider these:
a) Procrastinate by watching TV;
b) Think your work is so demanding that you don’t have time for your family and friends;
c) Put off doing a necessary task;
d) Avoid a painful situation that is important to confront;
e) Sedate feelings with drugs or alcohol;
f) Fall back into old prejudices (such as not liking somebody because of his or her color or sexuality or ethnicity).

Would any of these be on your list?

The second level we might consider as “soul” temptations, which may come from regularly succumbing to “ordinary” temptations:

a) Apathy—simply being unfeeling and uncaring;
b) Ignoring warning signs about physical, mental, or spiritual health;
c) Thinking, acting, and voting your self-interest without regard for the whole community or the total community of humanity;
d) Being satisfied with the status quo.

What would be on your list of “soul” temptations?

In the most important prayer we pray, Jesus urges us to take evil seriously. This seriousness is echoed in the vows we take at baptism. Two of the three baptismal questions focus on dealing with evil. If you don’t remember them, you can find them on page 34 of the Hymnal. The first question is this: “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness and reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?” The second question is stated positively: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

If we are right about the central focus of this prayer being for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, perhaps we could pray this petition with something like this in mind:

"Let us not be distracted, let us not be side-tracked by temptations? In this hour (today) keep us from the evil one, from the demonic powers, from corporate evil, from our preoccupation with success, security or popularity, that we might remain focused on what is most important -- doing your will on earth as it is in heaven."

This prayer reminds us that our most important prayers for God’s guidance are for the strength to resist temptation and not be swallowed up by evil; or as we will sing in that old spiritual, “Guide my feet, while I run this race, for I don’t want to run this race in vain.” We have been promised that when we ask for guidance, God, our loving parent, will provide it. Keep on praying!

[1] José Míguez Bonino, "The Two Fronts of Mission," Mission Papers, April 1991 (GBGM, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10115).

Saturday, August 4, 2007


Unpacking the Lord's Prayer (Part 5)

Matthew 6:9-15; 18:21-35

What does it mean to pray the Lord’s Prayer? After last Sunday some of you may be wondering if I am making a simple and straightforward prayer too complex. I hope not. My hope is that this series of sermons will help you “unpack” the prayer so that you will be led into dimensions of praying you haven’t experienced before. I’m not talking about your “head” here as much as I am talking about what you actually experience in prayer. If what I’m saying doesn’t open up new prayer experiences, you still have the understandings of the prayer with which you came, and probably will be more appreciative of them than before we began.

When I was working on this prayer once before, a friend who is an officer in the Coast Guard based in Washington D.C. sent me his counsel about the petition we take up today. He said, “I assume this is the hard part, about forgiving our sins “as we forgive those who sin against us.” I think the conjunctions are interesting, the way different parts of the prayer are linked. “Give us this day, our daily bread, AND forgive our sins, AS we forgive those who sin against us,” for example. It seems as if the lines of the prayer, like the many aspects of following Christ, are intertwined and not to be separated.” I think my friend is right; there are two key conjunctions in our text today. You probably recall from English class that “conjunctions” are words that join together sentences, phrases, clauses, or words.

First, there is the “AND” that connects the prayer for “daily bread” to the prayer for forgiveness of sins. Last Sunday I suggested that the petition for “daily bread” is not just a prayer for our own daily sustenance, but our own urgent plea for the day when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven and all people will have enough to eat. I suggest the conjunction “and” is not there by accident; I think it suggests that we need “daily forgiveness” as much as we need “daily bread”? What do you think?

Before we go any further, I should tell you that this week I almost changed the title of this sermon to “The Presbyterians Are Right! It Is ‘Debts’ And Not ‘Trespasses’.” “Debts” is probably the original word in this petition. “Trespass” is an old English word that means, “crossing over the line.” We are reminded of its meaning whenever we see a “No Trespassing” sign. The meaning is clear: “trespasses” are those occasions when we have crossed over the line in our relationship with God and our neighbor, or violated God’s law. Is that how you have understood it?

There is nothing wrong with that understanding of “sin,” but the word used in this text is “debts.” Sin is here thought of as a debt to God. All that we have done wrong mounts up as a huge debt; this is a petition to lift that load from us, a load we ourselves cannot remove. I don’t propose that we change how we say the Lord’s Prayer but we should know what was probably in the prayer as Jesus taught it.

The second conjunction used in our text today is “AS” meaning, “in or to the same degree in which.” Does this mean that we are being taught to ask God’s forgiveness “to the same degree” that we offer forgiveness to others? God’s forgiveness is unconditional and precedes human forgiveness of other humans, and is the ground and cause of our being able to forgive others. I think Eugene Peterson has it right as he paraphrased in the today’s words for centering in the bulletin: “In prayer there is a connection between what God does and what you do. You can’t get forgiveness from God, for instance, without also forgiving others. If you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God’s part.”

In the eighteenth chapter of Matthew, Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone. “Seven?” Peter asked. Jesus’ responded, “Seventy times seven,” and told this story about a chair of the board of a large corporation. Actually, Jesus said “king” but I think if Jesus told the story today this is how it might sound. You’ll have to be the judge of that. Anyway, the Chair of the Board decided to have the company books audited. When the audit showed that the Chief Executive Officer of the company had run up a debt of millions of dollars of unauthorized personal expenses and couldn’t pay them back, the Chair fired him, repossessed all the man’s company perks (house, car, credit cards, and stock options). The CEO pleaded with the Board Chair, promising that if he just had the chance he would pay it all back. The Board Chair was so touched by the man’s plea that he let him off, restored him to his old position, and erased the debt.

As that CEO went out from being forgiven, he came upon a clerk in the mailroom who owed him a hundred dollars. He grabbed him and demanded, “Pay up! Now!” The clerk pleaded for a chance to repay the money, but the CEO fired him on the spot. Someone reported this to the Board Chair. The Chair called the CEO back to him and said, “I forgave your entire debt when you begged for mercy. Shouldn’t you have been merciful to the clerk who owed you a measly hundred bucks?” The Board Chair then required the CEO pay his entire debt. Jesus said that is what God would do for those who don’t forgive when their brothers and sisters ask them for mercy.

We need to be very careful here. The admonition to "forgive" has often been misunderstood. For example, how many women have entered a pastor's study with stories of being abused by their husbands, only to be told to "go back home and forgive your husband?" No vulnerable person should be advised to go back into harms way. The counsel to forgive does not mean to acquiesce to injustice. Where there is no genuine repentance, no real evidence of changed behavior, as there was not with the CEO in Jesus’ story, forgiveness becomes “cheap grace,” which only encourages the guilty party to keep on sinning. But for us to ask God to forgive us without our being willing to forgive those who have wronged us is simply unthinkable. I think that’s what the conjunction “as” means in this petition.

Is this petition simply a prayer for forgiveness, or because the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer for the realization of God’s reign on earth, is there something more here, as we saw in the petition for “daily bread”? Consider this: Is anything so detrimental to our keeping focused on the realization of God's rule among us as the weight of guilt and fractured relationships? One scholar has suggested that the reason why the Roman Catholic order of the Dominicans prays this prayer twice a day is the importance of forgiving and being forgiven. Perhaps the most pervasive factor that prevents us from giving ourselves to others is that we are so bound up with internal problems that we cannot look beyond our own needs. When you pray this week, you might try something like this:

"God, let go of the things you are entitled to hold against us, and teach us to let go of the things we think we are entitled to hold against others that we may not be obstacles to the doing of your will on earth as it is in heaven, that we may not miss the taste of your reign.”

“God forgive the sins that weigh me down like a huge debt hanging over my head, even as I ease the burden of guilt of those who have wronged me, so that neither of us will be so preoccupied with our own problems that we miss the taste that you have for us today of your will being done on earth.”

Do you think these might be something of what is “packed” in the petition, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”?

Did you see the story on NBC News a month or so ago about Amy Biehl from Milwaukie, Wisconsin? This young woman had gone to South Africa in 1993 as an advocate for non-violence against apartheid. She was caught in the violence and murdered by a black mob. Her parents came to South Africa where they saw the oppression of Black South Africans and made a promise to their daughter that they would try to do something important in her name. They established a foundation to help the community where Amy was killed. Then, when four men were tried for her death, the parents asked for amnesty, not the death penalty. If that wasn’t remarkable enough, when the court did grant amnesty, the parents hired the four young radicals to work in their foundation. The forgiveness of the parents transformed the four young men. Amy’s father has since died of cancer, but her mother continues to travel the world as an advocate of non-violence, and she travels with one of her daughter’s killers.

On this day, when we think about forgiveness, it is fitting that we celebrate Holy Communion. In taking the bread and the cup we are reminded that God is present and in this moment ready to forgive our sins. We take the bread and cup as a “taste” in this day of that forgiveness, a “taste” that will enable us to forgive today those who have wronged us. Keep on praying.

[i] Eugene Peterson paraphrase of Matthew 6:14-15 in The Message

[ii] NBC Evening News