Depends On Us

January 17, 2021

Series: January 2021

Category: Deepening Our Understanding of Familiar Passages

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Today's Scripture

Matthew 6:9-13

9 ‘Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,

   hallowed be your name.

10   Your kingdom come.

   Your will be done,

     on earth as it is in heaven.

11   Give us this day our daily bread.

12   And forgive us our debts,

     as we also have forgiven our debtors.

13   And do not bring us to the time of trial,

     but rescue us from the evil one.


Today's Sermon

Depends on Us

            A hypothetical – Someone’s drowning.  Someone comes to the water’s edge.  They stop, pray for their safety, and walk away. 

            This is how Christians sometimes treat prayer, relinquishing responsibility by adding to God’s “To Do” list.  Now, of course, there is something faithful about turning over whatever troubles us to God in prayer.  Jesus himself models this for us, but this kind of praying is not meant to release us from responsibility.  When I was a summer camp counselor one of our directors feared the hypothetical I described might prove true if we weren’t careful, because things were getting too relaxed down at the waterfront.  All the praying was fine, but we still had to do our jobs.  Prayer supports our work; it does not replace it. 

            I didn’t mention last week, but we have now begun a new sermon series on familiar Scripture passages.  It’s an echo to the fall series we did on so-called troubling Bible passages.  It too is an attempt to open up for deeper meaning what we may think we fully understand.  Last week was the love passage from 1st Corinthians, eerily fitting for a week that manifested the opposite of love in our nation’s capital.  This week we address the prayer used more than any other in the Christian tradition, The Lord’s Prayer as it appears in the Gospel of Matthew.

            There’s a lot that’s striking about The Lord’s Prayer. 

  • It begins with “Our Father” not “My ” As we’ve said before, their faith was always seen as a collective good, not primarily an individual journey. 
  • It’s concerned with economics. The word “debts” is chosen intentionally, and much of how Jesus was understood was in terms of the jubilee, the Jewish understanding of debt forgiveness and social leveling. 
  • Similarly, it’s social and political. Praying that God’s kingdom come is about establishing a certain type of heavenly order to our human societies.  That said, it is not concerned with the accumulation of power, or the accumulation of anything for that matter. 
  • The prayer is for “daily bread,” enough for today, not the hoarding for tomorrow.
  • Perhaps most striking is the way in which the prayer stands in contrast to the ways in which many Christians conceive of and practice prayer. So often, Christians pray in a way that indicates a belief that prayer is indeed updating God’s “To Do” list.  The Lord’s Prayer says, “Forgive us…as we forgive others.”  It’s a conditional prayer, one in which Jesus places the condition on us.  God should forgive in the manner and measure in which we are willing to be forgiving of others.

            Were you aware that’s what you were praying every time you offered that prayer?  Forgive us as we forgive?  In April, I’ve got a whole sermon coming on forgiveness, one of the most pivotal and complex Christian subjects if you ask me.  Today, I am mainly concerned with this notion that part of our spiritual practice, our prayer practice, is to hold ourselves accountable to certain commitments and to reinforce the notion that our behavior indeed impacts God’s.  Our prayer doesn’t release us from responsibility; it enlists in a greater responsibility.  It releases us from being overwhelemed so that we are free to act.

            There is someone whose work I would like to get to get to know better.  His name was Terry Fretheim, and he was an Old Testament scholar and contemporary of Walter Brueggemann, who you have heard me quote many a time.  Fretheim died recently and so his colleagues have been remembering him and his contributions to the Christian study of the Old Testament and to Christian theology.  Brueggemann acknowledged that while he himself he was a child of Calvinism, the strong sovereign God, the one about whom we speak about as unwavering, even unchanging God (though that is not the God of the whole of Scripture), Fretheim would remind us that not only is God influenced by humanity, God acts in the world through humanity.[1] 

            Fretheim was associated with what’s known as “process theology” (again, don’t let me lose you) and means like what is sounds, God is unfolding, you might even say growing.  I have certainly heard rabbis speak of it that way.  Some prefer to say our recognition and understanding of God is growing.  You choose.  Because of this, our invitation to participate in God’s work is of greater weight.  It’s an invitation to a more consequential party.  Now we know, perhaps too painfully, the danger of those who are convinced they know God’s will while their cause is lies and false power.  That does not relinquish our responsibility to claim the liberating power and force of God that we see in the Old and New Testaments and beyond, and to join actively in that movements that set free not ensnare and intimidate and discriminate.

            In this special prayer, which Jesus gives us, we pray that God’s activity happen at the pace and manner in which we are willing to participate.  “Do this,” we say to God, “as we, ourselves, are willing to do it.”  Our prayer is not just a request of what God should be and do, but a proclamation of who we will strive to be and what we will commit to do.  Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, reminds us that this is not an easy prayer.  It is a prayer that should change us, like all good prayers.[2]  The other day, someone posted online, “Prayer is too often used as a way to put responsibility on God and relieve ourselves of having to do actual work,” to which Rabbi Ruttenberg, a wonderful follow, agreed and added, “prayer can also be rocket fuel for the work, a way of connecting to the Source and filling up so that you don’t drain your own resources.  It can be a way of asking for—and finding—the bravery, wisdom and strength to take the action the world needs of us.”[3] 

            Both are true – prayer calls us into action by calling us to account and it equips us for that action.  True prayer will not lead to falsehood, but will clear the mind of lies and deceit, because it is an opening to a higher truth and a decentering of the ego.  And, true prayer will lead us into holy participation in the truth and living into heaven on earth. 

            There is a drowning taking place.  Say your prayers.  Then help. 






Quotes, Questions & Prompts for Reflection, Discussion, and Prayer

“It's not an easy prayer. It's not a prayer that pretends and it's also a prayer that requires our lives change. It requires that we become different sorts of people...”
- Rowan Williams

1. What do you think is the main point of The Lord’s Prayer?

2. What do you think Christianity says about forgiveness?

3. Why do we say The Lord’s Prayer in worship every week?

4. How does The Lord’s Prayer differ from your own prayers? How is it similar?

5. What does God’s kingdom look like?