The Sermon on the Mount is found in the Gospel According to Matthew, chapters 5, 6, and 7. It is a collection of teachings by Jesus to his disciples and to the people who were attracted to him and his message of God’s intimate love for them, all of them.
In the midst of this sermon, Jesus teaches the people about prayer. He reminds them that prayer is not for show or for status or to prove that one is better than others or closer to God than others. Rather, prayer is the manifestation of a relationship with God. Anyone can pray. Any prayer is okay. After all, as Jesus says, God knows what you need before you ask.
Still, Jesus, like any good teacher, offers an example of prayer, and says: Pray, then, in this way. And we have what we call the Lord’s Prayer, or, in other language, the Prayer of Jesus. Jesus actually offered many prayers, as recorded in the gospels, but this prayer has become the foremost example of devotion and faithfulness. Millions of Christians have memorized this prayer and recite it in unison each Sunday in worship. Thus, it has taken on a special status in the religious life of parishioners. Almost a magical status, as if it has the capacity to bring us closer to God than any other kind of prayer.
I find it ironic that this is so, even as I sense the effect of saying this prayer in a public worship service. Just before teaching this prayer, Jesus has said: “6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” But we do not do that in worship. Rather, we say this prayer
together, aloud, although we may use slightly different words depending on such factors as inclusive language and theological diversity. Having said this, I confess I love this prayer for what it says and for how it invites me and us into a more loving relationship with God and with our neighbor.
Jesus said, Pray, then, in this way: Our Father.
To say “our” is to join with others in prayer. Even if we go into our room and shut the door, we are not really alone. We are a community, interconnected and interdependent with one another. We pray not only for ourselves, but for all. To say “our” is to acknowledge our connectivity, our interdependence with one another, and our common dependence upon God.
To say “father” or, as the original language of Aramaic has it, “abba”, is to use a parental term of intimacy, trust and love. Think of a term a child uses for their parent sitting on their parent’s knee. For countless people, over the centuries, the term “father” for God has been a comfort and a blessing. That is not always the case today. Not all of us in this place feel comfortable using the word, “father,” to address God. And so many of us use other words. We say Father/Mother, or Creator, or we maybe we wait until the leader of the prayer has spoken the opening and then we join in. I am here to assure you that God doesn’t care if you use “Father” or not. God loves us regardless of how we address God. Theologically, patriarchal
language for God is insufficient. God is not male. God is beyond our anthropomorphic descriptions. And so, all our names for God will be symbolic. They will all fail at capturing the mystery. But we need language and so we use terms that approach some semblance of what it means to be in relationship with the One who creates, who abides with and sustains
us, who loves us. Jesus used “Abba.” It denotes love and trust. The word or address we use for God should follow the example of this love and trust, no matter what language we use.
“Who art in heaven.” I will come back to this one.
“Hallowed be thy name”, or, as the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates it, “may your name be revered as holy.” Holiness is a wonderful and marvelous concept. What makes things “holy?” How are “holy” things different from everything else? The Book of Exodus tells of a burning bush out of which God spoke to Moses and, as Moses approached the bush, the voice said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Celtic Spirituality teaches that there are “thin places,” locations where the distance between God and creation are thinner, closer to one another. Jacob woke from his dream of a ladder going from earth to heaven with angels traveling to and fro. When Jacob awoke he said, “Surely God was in this place.”
We attribute holiness. We sense something special about this sanctuary and we call it holy. We attribute holiness to God and we have to have a name of some sort, so God’s name is holy. Modern Jewish culture recognizes this holiness and judges it forbidden to pronounce the name of God. And thus, symbolically, they take off their sandals.
“May your kingdom come.”
My Old Testament professor in seminary would pray the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of each class. He was an old man, a refugee from Hungary, who spoke with a thick accent. When he got to this part of the prayer, he would raise his voice and almost shout, THY KINGDOM COME! He nailed it. That is what this part of the prayer means. It means we bring all our energy and faith to the petition to God that God’s realm, God’s way of justice and love
would be real and present for all creation. Martin Luther King, Jr. used a similar term in his preaching. He called it the Beloved Community. In Jesus’ time, this part of the prayer was treasonous language because the Emperor in Rome was the King. To call anyone else king or to attribute a kingdom to anyone else, was cause for execution, which of course, Jesus
suffered. The difference in kingdoms, however, is that the rule of God is love not power or social control. Many people now have substituted the newly created word, kin-dom, for the
word kingdom. It is a way to make it more inclusive. Again, like the word “father,” God doesn’t care. The point is not to get it right, but to get it, that is, to know that God wants us to be a part of a new way of living with our neighbor, a way of compassion and justice and love.
“May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
This is a tough one. Not so much the reference to earth and heaven, but the reference to God’s will. After all, what is the will of God? Peace? Yes. Shalom? Yes. Justice? Yes. Love? Yes. But, in any one particular circumstance or any one life, who can say what is God’s will? And yet, we attribute a will to God, an intention, even, God forbid, a plan. But, I would argue, we do it with humility, knowing that our pride and our desire to control or define things, will derail our best intentions. And, if we attribute a will to God, how do we discern that will? This is a question worth discussing in church, maybe even worthy of a sermon series or faith study.
And to conclude my contribution to the study of the Lord’s Prayer, I lift up the context of how Jesus prays for God’s will in heaven to be God’s will on earth. Divine proximity and location are interesting subjects. Where is God, anyway? The earth we understand, and we see God in earthly things, in people, in nature, in beauty, in art, in music. But heaven, that is a more
complex subject. Some say, heaven is a place, a distant place, where God resides. I cannot think of God being that distant, not the God I know. For me, God is here, right now. So, using the transitive property of equality, (If a is equal to b and b is equal to c, then a is equal to c) heaven is right here, right now, and, therefore, we are on holy ground. Imagine that! We are on holy ground. God and heaven are in our midst, in our DNA, on the path which we walk, in the pew in which we sit. So, when we pray the prayer of Jesus, and I hope we pray with words that do not stick in our throats but soften our hearts, I hope (I pray) we experience the
wonder, the joy, the comfort, the blessed assurance that Jesus must have felt when he taught his friends how to pray.
Our Father/Mother, Holy Presence beyond naming. Please issue in your Realm of love and peace. May we see your desire and plan for us and shape our willful lives to yours, in this place we call earth which is really heaven if we can only open our eyes and our minds and our hearts to how you are present with us, always. Amen.