When You Pray: Sermon on the Mount 6

October 15, 2023

Series: October 2023

Speaker: Rob McClellan


Today's Sermon


"When You Pray: Sermon on the Mount 6"


            Before the reading, a word about what is unfolding in Israel, in Gaza.  This week, I have watched colleague after colleague, with good hearts, try and speak to the horrific violence we have seen this last 8 days, and completely step in it, fall short.  I will not be eloquent.  I am not up to the task.  One can, of course, be sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians and still condemn in no uncertain terms the horrendous terrorism of Hamas, who is neither friend to Israel nor to the Palestinian people.  What has transpired, what is transpiring, and what will transpire is hell.

            Lord have mercy on us for the violence we inflict on one another, the violence that gives rise to the violence, and the legacy of violence we hand down to our children.

            A moment of quiet prayer for the pain, the bloodshed, and the need for peace…amen.

            We continue our series on the Sermon on the Mount, centering Jesus’ teachings rather than statements about Jesus.  Today, the most familiar prayer in all of Christianity, the Lord’s Prayer, which occurs in slightly different forms in two places in the New Testament, here and Luke 11.  Matthew 6:7-16.  Hear what the Spirit is saying to us…

Matthew 6:7-16

7 ‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
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.
14For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will
your Father forgive your trespasses.
16 ‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“When You Pray…”
Sermon on the Mount 6

           Because this prayer is so familiar, we can lose touch with what’s actually in it. It’s almost as if we need a fresh version to help us reconnect to the essence of what Jesus is saying.  Let’s reacquaint ourselves with this prayer—and we’re going to spend more time than usual working directly with the text.  We place a high value on relevance here as we interpret the faith, and sometimes that comes from not only us talking about our world, but the sacred text itself.  ]

           I want to begin by briefly acknowledging some observations we have made at greater length in here before.  When we end the prayer “for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever” we are neither quoting Jesus nor the Bible.  We are quoting lines from a text called theDidache, the “Teaching”, written at the end of the first century or beginning of the second.  The Didacheis like an early church manual, covering ethical instruction and worship rituals. 

            Another aspect covered in one of our many conversations about forgiveness is the notion that when we pray the Lord’s Prayer we are asking God to forgive us in the manner and measure that we forgive others (see vs. 12).  Jesus says the same about being judged in chapter 7.  Frederich Buechner reminds us of the boldness of The Lord’s Prayer and asking God to treat us as well as we have treated others may be the boldest piece of all.

            Before we go through the rest of the prayer line by line, do a little inventory of what your or our prayers usually consist.  There are so many ways to pray and so many thoughts on prayer.  One of the books I have is literally called 50 Ways to Pray, and it includes all kinds of practices working with all kinds of modalities, from journaling to imagining, from contemplation or meditation to body prayers and on and on.  I have a couple of books of prayers for all sorts of occasions, from the ritual of morning coffee to the planting of flowers, from passing a graveyard to learning from animals.  Anne Lamott wrote a book about three types of prayers she utters aptly titled, Help, Thanks, Wow.  Paul said to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:16-17).  Meister Eckhart said if the only prayer you ever say is thank you, it would be enough.  These are just Christian forms.  I spoke at Rodef Sholom at their Sukkot service two weeks ago and I was reminded of the beauty and diversity of the sung prayers in Jewish worship.  Abraham Joshua Heschel talked about praying with our feet as we work for justice.  I have bowed to the ground with Muslims in prayer.  We have seen the indigenous pray in dance.  Jesus prayed all the time, and while often we’re not privy to what he prayed, this is the one time Jesus explicitly instructs us about prayer. Say this, he says:

Our Father in heaven

Let’s start with “Father.” We complement masculine language with feminine.  Sometimes, we remove gendered terms altogether, but we shouldn’t lose the intimacy of such language altogether.  We may take for granted the notion of God as one with whom we can be in relationship, but this was quite a statement for Jesus.  Oh, and notice it’s “our” Father, not “my.”

“in Heaven,” literally, belonging to or coming from the sky.  Father sky.  It sounds indigenous, and maybe it is.

hallowed be your name. 

God’s name is sacred. No wonder some traditions don’t dare utter it.  It’s awesome, beyond reproach.  God is a concept that lives beyond the reach of our words.  They are, by definition too small, by definition metaphorical for the great mystery of ultimate reality.  That mystery is sacred, holy.

Your kingdom come.

Kingdom is how they would have understood social order.  Jesus is praying for a righteous kingdom, a just one, not one carrying the negative associations we rightly have today with autocracy.  Many today prefer reign or realm of God, the way.  Others instead of kingdom say “kin-dom” of God.  I heard a Native American teacher the other day talk about the need for us to return to relationships of kinship, among humans and between humans and other species, even earth herself.  Your kin-dom come.

Your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.

Your way, the way of the skies, done on the earth. The way of the cosmos that creates, provides the conditions for life and beauty, the fertile way, the way of love that by its nature, as Jonathan Edwards put it, overflows, the way that blesses and protects the vulnerable, may that come to pass here.

11 Give us this day our daily bread.

Give us what we need for subsistence living.  Lord knows we are using up the earth with reaching for more than our daily bread.  Jesus is not asking us to live without regard for the future.  Quite the contrary, he is inviting us to shift away from hoarding and storing up more than we need.  Likewise, he is cautioning us about deferring all present experience for a future that may never come, or if it does, we’ll be busy then looking ahead to the next future.

12 And forgive us our debts,
     as we also have forgiven our debtors. 

It is “debts.”  “Trespasses” comes later.  The implication is intentionally economic.  We spiritualize so much in Christianity.  Jesus’ material focus is rooted in the tradition of the jubilee, periodic society-wide forgiveness of financial debt forgiveness and manumission of slaves.

13  And do not bring us to the time of trial,
     but rescue us from the evil one.

Guide us away from being led astray, where we will be destructive to others, which is being destructive to ourselves. 

“The evil one,” – we’re too sophisticated to talk about that in a dignified intellectual gathering such as this, and yet, Jesus personifies, makes tangible, a sense, an energy, an experience of opposition or misleading if we are to stick with the metaphor.  More of us than would admit in polite company know what it’s like to wrestle with demons. Why not name it. 

“For thine is the kingdom, and the glory…”

Oh, we already covered that.  Jesus didn’t say that.  We did, which is fine.  It’s an important affirmation, that the power belongs to the holy one, not to us.  It’s a prophetic reminder in a moment when we see the horror of what human power inflicted over and against another looks like. 

            How would you line up the way you pray, that mental list you made earlier, with how Jesus asked his followers to pray?  I don’t want you to feel defensive or judged.  Let’s all just be curious about our own practice. That’s how we grow.  Where are the points of convergence and difference between your or our prayers and how Jesus taught us to pray?  Maybe take this as an exercise into your conversations or prayer time.

            Even after unpacking these familiar words, it might help to hear a fresh version.  I have been wanting to share a translation of the New Testament someone shared with me last spring.  With Indigenous People’s Day last week, this is as good a time as any.  It’s called the First Nations Version:  An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament.  I try to be careful about cultural appropriation, but this is a version translated by Native peoples from a diversity of North American nations and tribes who have chosen Christianity as their faith.  Part of respecting indigenous people is also honoring choices they have made. 

            Here is how this translation renders The Lord’s Prayer:

O Great Spirit,

“Great Spirit – That’s a name for God that resonates with me.

O Great Spirit, our Father from above,

Father sky, Mother cosmos…

we honor your name as sacred and holy.  Bring your good road…

The “good road” is how they translate kingdom of God, the “good road.” I love that.  New language can help us dump baggage from the old. 

Bring your good road to us, where the beauty of your ways in the spirit-world above is reflected in the earth below.

There’s “thy kingdom come”– “where they beauty of your ways in the spirit-world above is reflected in the earth below.” 

Provide for us day by day—the elk, the buffalo, and the salmon.  The corn, the squash, and the wild rice, all the things we need for each day. 

It’s just so beautiful and represents the fullness bread was meant to imply.

Release us from the things we have done wrong, in the same way we release others for the things done wrong to us.

Forgiveness is about release.  Release.

Guide us away from the things that tempt us to stray from your good road, and set us free from the evil one and his worthless ways. Aho!  May it be so!

May it be so indeed.