Then Job answered the Lord: ‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. “Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?” Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. “Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.” I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.’
Please pray with me...
A friend of mine told me about a woman he had met in the parking lot of a local bookstore. She had a great bundle of books in her arm. “What in the world are you doing,” he asked, “opening your own bookstore?” “No,” said the woman, “these are all books about prayer. All my life I have been hearing about the importance of prayer, so I finally decided to learn how to pray. I have bought fourteen books on the subject. And not only that, I have signed up for two courses in prayer, one at my church and one at a friend’s church. I am really going to master this subject!” Several weeks later, the friend ran into the woman again, this time at the grocery store. “How is the big project going?” he asked. “Have you learned to pray?” She hung her head and made a gesture of despair. “It was too complicated,” she said, “and I gave up. Now I’m taking a course in Yoga.”
There are millions of books on prayer. And, yet I wonder how many of us, like this woman, feel that it is too complicated. I wonder if that same yearning is what prompted the disciples to ask Jesus to teach them to pray. The context of this request is just after Jesus has finished praying. Again. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus often goes off to spend time in prayer – the Spirit came upon Jesus while he was praying (Luke 3:21-22), he withdrew to desolate places to pray (5:16) and so on. After he is finished praying, his disciples ask him to teach them. I wonder how Jesus was praying that inspired their request. I wonder if he had his eyes shut or his hands uplifted. I wonder if Jesus was sitting, kneeling, or maybe even walking in circles. I wonder if was this time, having seen Jesus healing and preaching and talking about loving their neighbors that it occurs to them that they need to get in touch with God like Jesus does, and perhaps it starts with praying. In this time period, there were set prayers, in Hebrew. A devout Jew would repeat the prayer in the morning and again in the evening. If the situation prohibited reciting these prayers in their entirety, a shorter version could be said.
Apparently, John had taught his disciples a prayer to pray.1 And so the disciples made the humble request that Jesus teach them. As we begin this season of Lent, I wonder if the first stop on this journey in prayer isn’t to allow ourselves the humility to admit that we don’t know as much as we think we know. The disciples would have known “how to pray”...so the question they are asking is much deeper. Do we come today, ready to hear an answer or do we think we already know. In Matthew’s version, the prayer begins with OUR Father. Luke’s version doesn’t include “Our,” but I think this is an important piece of the prayer. This isn’t my prayer to my private God, but Our God. When we prayer, it’s not just about it. Praying should help move us to think about our brothers and sisters who are also praying this day. Using the word “Our” pushes us beyond ourselves, pushes us to be a little more humble that prayer isn’t just about me. When I was growing up in Tennessee, almost every prayer that was prayed at school and with my friends began with “Father, God I just...” and that phrase bothered me, and while everyone has their own style of praying, and this introduction to prayer was certainly personal, I realize later that what bothered me was the monopolization of God – you’re MY God so listen to these requests I’m about to make...
No, not Father God I...Our Father. So the next word in the prayer is Father. The word Jesus used was Aramaic, which is the affectionate word for father – namely Daddy or Papa. So, the point isn’t that God isn’t personal, it’s that God isn’t owned by any one of us. OUR Daddy. Some people have a difficult time with the masculine gender form for God. I understand this. Not every person has had a loving relationship with their fathers. The common address for first century Jews would have been “Our Father, Our King” (abenu malkenu)2.
An Anglican leader in the last century, G.A. Studdert Kennedy used to say, “When I try to tell a small boy in the slums that God is his Father, I often wonder what he makes of us when his idea about fathers may be that they beat mothers and are generally drunk.”3
For people who have been abused or neglected by their fathers, the image of mother may be preferable. For those who have felt the patriarchal sexism of the church where men are seen to be more like God and
thus better leaders...God as Father is challenging. But the descriptor here is describing relationship, not actual anatomy, not actual gender. I don’t believe God is a man and I don’t believe God is a woman. God is bigger than our categories of gender and sex. God is God. So, when we pray, “Our Father” ...it’s more about claiming God as God of us all and claiming an intimate relationship that denotes care and compassion, depth of relationship.
So, Jesus invites his disciples to pray our Father. In Luke’s version, we don’t have the phrase “who art in Heaven” but Matthew includes it – so let me just mention one comment. Our Father who art in heaven I find as comforting. There is ongoing debate about the nature of God’s being and whether God is immanent or transcendent – here or far away in the heavens. I think this part of the Lord’s prayer invites us to strike a balance in that debate. God is on the one hand personally invested in each of us – from here to Nigeria to Russia to New Zealand to India to Palestine to Bolivia to Uruguay...present and knowing, and at the same time is in heaven – not confined to this world. Our God is in heaven and one earth. When we pray, we are invited to remember to whom we pray, not God of money, of present circumstances, of world torn by violence...we pray to Our God who is in all that and beyond! Our Father who art in heaven.
The last phrase of our prayer to consider today is “Hallowed be thy name” Holy is your name. Holy are you. Sacred, hallowed. What do we consider to be holy? What is holiness? The title for today’s sermon is “Praying with Reverent intimacy.” We pray to God who knows us intimately, but we also acknowledge that God is holy, hallowed, to be awed and feared, loved and adored. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says "Understand what you're talking about when you're talking about God, this is serious, this is the most wonderful and frightening reality that we could imagine, more wonderful and frightening than we can imagine."
We begin our prayers by realizing to whom we pray. We are not offering a prayer to ourselves, to our church, to anyone short of the Almighty God who has created galaxies and bacteria. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. Hallowed be your name is interesting grammatically because it says two things: May your name be holy; and Holy is your name already. When you think of the holy and sacred, I wonder what comes to mind? Psalm 8:3-4 “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
When I think of holy moments, I imagine nature, I see waves rolling in off the Lake, newborn infants, holy moments are times when I stop and reflect that something bigger than me was at work...conversations, healing, hope, love...this is holy. So, we pray Our God, loving Divine parent of all people, Holy are You. Your name, your being. You are the definition of holy. In praying these words, we almost get an attitude adjustment, awakening to the holy in our midst.
How can we live into our relationship with God whose name is holy. The book of Job is a great story of a man’s conversation with God, very prayerful – and yet Job is called to account at the end, where God has just confronted him with who he is talking to. Job has been praying intimately, relying on a very deep relationship with God, but he got a little too casual, seeing God as inconsequential. As we consider our address to God as we begin to pray, we read these verses as a reminder to pause and worship and praise, remembering the magnitude of who it is we are addressing. John Wesley “This prayer, uttered from the heart, and in its true and full meaning, is indeed the badge of a real Christian.”
As we leave this place this day, we are reminded of our humanity, our mortality, and our place of sacred worth as bearing the image of God. God waits for our prayers. God listens, and is moving through our prayers. And So let us pray Our Father, Mother, Loving Parent, Creator of the stars and the heavens, all knowing and yet present in the minutia of life, you are holy. Remind us of your holiness. May your holiness be felt, be lived out in our lives – in this season of Lent, remind us of our sacred relationship with you, and let us live in the peace of that relationship. Amen
1 New Interpreters Bible Commentary on Luke 11
2 NIB, Volume VIII, p 203
3 Kennedy, The Wicked Gate, 1963