Reflections on the Lord’s Prayer

Matthew 6:9-14

Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name.
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,
for Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen. 

This is our last week in a little mini-series on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the book of Matthew. These three chapters of Matthew, chapters 5 through 7, are a wonderful summary of the teaching of Jesus. And interestingly, none of it is about what to believe or what to think. All of it is about how to live, how to act. 

The first week we talked about Jesus’ principles for creative nonviolent resistance, how we resist evil without resisting people who do evil. Jesus’ command to love our enemies is the single most revolutionary point in his teaching and it is the only thing that can interrupt our cycles of retribution and finally bring true peace in the world. 

Last week we were honored to hear from Jamar Doyle, the president of the United Church of Christ Health and Human Service Ministries. He shared with us Jesus’ “beatitudes” — the assertion that God’s blessing is with the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourners, those who are persecuted. God’s Kingdom shows up first and foremost among those who don’t have it all together.

This morning we’re going to look together at one of the most familiar passages in the entire Bible: the Lord’s Prayer. We’ve already prayed it this morning. Most of you can recite it from memory. People who don’t attend church on a regular basis know this prayer. It is so familiar that I wonder if we’ve gotten accustomed to how powerful it can be. To go through it point by point, we would need several weeks, and perhaps we will do that in the future. This morning we are also going to commission this year’s Church Council and celebrate Communion together. So as we consider this prayer, I want to offer you some larger reflections that came to me as I’ve been specifically meditating on it this week.

This prayer begins with the word “Our.” That word is possessive, and too often it winds up sounding like God belongs to us. Our God. But what I think Jesus wanted us to remember by starting the prayer with “Our” is not that God belongs to us, but that we belong to God. Our God. It also means this prayer is communal. We can pray it as individuals, but the power is when we pray it in groups. Everything in this is plural possessive: our Father, our daily bread, our debts, our temptation, our deliverance. Our faith may be individual, but to be Christian is to be in community.

So, we belong to God and we belong to one another in community. And if there is a whole community of people who claim to belong to God, then those people are largely responsible for God’s reputation. God’s name is hallowed, God’s reputation is made holy by the people who claim to belong to God. How we all conduct ourselves shapes what other people believe about God: is God forgiving or is God condemning? Is God inclusive or is God exclusive? Is God holy or is God terrible? The world will know that in part based on how we act. God’s name is hallowed when we live hallowed lives: when we together actively do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. 

When we do those things, all together, as a community, God’s will is done on earth. God’s Kingdom is revealed in the midst of our earthly empires. God’s realm is established in the midst of our realm. We trust that it is happening. Hopefully in partnership with us. But I believe it can also happen in spite of us. I trust that God’s Kingdom will come ultimately despite what each of us do individually. I can individually contribute to the coming of God’s Kingdom. But I can’t individually stop the coming of God’s Kingdom. So if it’s going to happen anyway, maybe why bother?

Here’s one way to think about it: If the Kingdom comes despite us, if we haven’t been participating in it and we aren’t ready for it, when the Kingdom arrives, we may not be ready to fully experience it. Here’s an example: when the Kingdom comes, it will usher in a time when we finally have racial equity, when the color of our skin will not dictate our position in society. When we will no longer have to keep reminding people that Black Lives Matter because we will have a society in which everyone is actually treated as if their life does matter. If that kind of society is created, and I as an individual, am clinging to racist attitudes and ideology, that is not going to feel like the Kingdom to me. That is going to feel like hell to me. The situation itself will bring judgment on me. So it is better for me to begin participating now, to begin living into Kingdom realities now, so that I’m ready. As Jesus says in another place, woe unto us if the Kingdom comes and we’re not ready.

The final reflection I have from this prayer, as we prepare to commission servant leaders and celebrate the Lord’s Supper together, is that failure is inevitable and forgiveness is required. Whether you prefer the language of debts, trespasses, or sins, the principle is the same. Beloved ones, failure is inevitable. We are not perfect. And apparently God does not expect us to be because Jesus includes forgiveness in this prayer. Failure is inevitable. We will fail. We will fail to live into our own values, we will fail to live faithfully in our relationships with others, and we will fail to live at the level of loving God with all our heart, mind, and strength. We will fail. And others will fail us, because they are only human too. We are all the same. That’s the point of the doctrine of “original sin” in my opinion: not that we are all bad, but that we are all the same; no one is better than anyone else. Failure is inevitable. 

And forgiveness is required, in both meanings of the word. We are required to forgive others, and we require forgiveness in order to survive. That’s why we make such a big deal of confession and assurance of pardon when we celebrate Communion. God has infinitely and lovingly forgiven each of us, not counting our sins against us. The Psalmist says, “If you O Lord kept a record of sins, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, therefore we reverence you.” Thanks be to God, God is not keeping score. And that same infinitely loving and gracious God who has forgiven us requires us to forgive other people. Requires. I don’t use that word a lot because I know it’s been used so harshly for some of you in past religious communities. But friends, there’s no way around it. The God who forgives us requires us to forgive others. Now we can have a much longer conversation about what forgiveness means, but here’s one idea. The word “forgiveness” is also translated as “release.” And in this prayer Jesus insists that the forgiveness we give and the forgiveness we receive are connected. So when we put all that together, here’s where I think we land: we cannot expect to be released from anything that we aren’t willing to release. We cannot expect to be released from anything that we aren’t willing to release. If we want to experience release, we must release. If we want to no longer be tied to a negative experience, we have to let go of it. We cannot expect to be released from anything that we aren’t willing to release.

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