A few weeks ago Rev. Marshall Cook unpacked the verses from the Sermon on the Mount that deal with charity, prayer and fasting. And in that section are the well-known verses we call the Lord’s Prayer. But I asked Marshall to skip talking about the prayer because I wanted us to look at it together, today, on the day when we welcome in new members. Remember that this Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ explanation of what it means to live in God’s Kingdom, not simply by following the Old Testament law, but by interpreting the principles of the law for the situations we face now. The words of the Scriptures come alive for each generation in new ways as we read them in new situations. These are not black-and-white rules but an invitation to live as free and responsible people, trying to reflect God in a world that has drifted very far from God’s original plan.
“Let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the Word and Wisdom of God.” – Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Reading: Matthew 6:7-15
And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
“This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Our God is not a magic machine. And our prayers are not magic spells. God is not waiting for us to say exactly the right thing in the right way the right number of times in order to give us what we want. That’s not what anyone would do to someone that they loved.
Truthfully what happens as a result of our prayers is still a mystery to me. Does God not work if I don’t pray? Do my prayers change God? Do my prayers change me? Am I releasing energy into the universe? I really don’t know for sure. And what I think changes from day to day.
Here’s what I do know: I know that the words I say have power and meaning for me. I believe my own words more than I believe anyone else’s and I bet a lot of you are the same, because my own words are this fascinating mixture of what I already believe and what I’m willing to believe. This means that even when I’m not sure what’s happening on God’s end, I know that something is happening on my end when I pray. I am declaring what I believe to be true already and also giving voice to things that I think might be possible.
And so it’s really powerful when we all pray together. As as Miss Mary said, this well known litany that we call the Lord’s Prayer or the Prayer of our Savior or the Our Father, this thing has power. This is not a prayer for me about me. This is a prayer for us about us and the whole world, and that’s what I want us to think about today as we get ready to welcome in new members. What happens when we pray this prayer together, which some of us have done thousands of times in our lives?
When we pray this together, we declare what we believe to be true. We believe that God loves us as a parent, and that everything that is God is sacred. We trust that God is somehow involved in providing for us, again not magically, but that every good thing in our lives has its source in God, and that God has our best interests at heart. We believe that God is forgiving, not holding our worst moments against us. And we trust that God has an intention for the world, to ultimately reveal God’s kingdom here on earth, for all things here to fall in line with the way God wants them to be.
And when we pray this together, we also give voice to what we believe is possible. We believe it is possible for the power of love to overcome the love of power as the world is restored to God’s original dream. We believe it is possible for everyone in the world to have enough to eat, not through hoarding, but through sharing and trusting. We believe it is possible for us to let go of the grudges that we carry and extend forgiveness just as we have been forgiven. And we believe it is possible, in our hardest, most tempting, most trying moments, for us to find a well of God’s strength in us.
To pray this prayer is not only to ask God to do these things but to declare our willingness to be involved in what God is doing. God doesn’t magically provide daily bread. I haven’t seen any manna on the ground recently. But if the resources exist, it is within our power to pay attention to who is hungry and to share what we have to make sure people are fed.
Forgiveness doesn’t usually happen magically or easily. But we have the power to recognize that we are holding grudges and to make the strong and brave choice to let them go.
Our trust in God doesn’t put us in a bubble. It doesn’t stop hard things from coming our way. But when we are tempted or we face trials, we can choose how to respond. We can choose to lean into our trust. We can choose to be vulnerable enough to ask for help from others and not just from God. And we are much more likely to do that if we’ve heard ourselves say these things out loud already.
The world is in desperate need of people who are willing to step outside their own comfort zones and get involved in someone else’s life. We live very insulated and individualized lives. And frankly that is not the way Jesus lived and it’s not the way of the Gospel. This fall Nancy is leading a small group book study on a book called The Art of Neighboring. If you are willing to begin taking steps toward a more community-oriented way of life, I hope you will check out this book group. The world needs God’s people to be good neighbors.
The world needs Kingdom people, and the only reason to come to church is to be inspired, equipped and empowered to be Kingdom people in the world. God does not need us to defend the institution of the church. But God does need us to be people who are committed to living out God’s Kingdom in the world. It would be very hard to do that alone, but we absolutely can do it together.
As we welcome seven new members this morning, we want to remember that membership at a church is like being a member of a family, not like being a member of a club. When a family gets a new member, like a new baby or someone who marries in, that new member doesn’t just assimilate to the family’s way of doing things. The family actually changes because of this new member. So while our new members today will learn some of this family’s traditions, we will also be changed by these new members. We welcome their different perspectives, we will listen to their wisdom, and we will grow and change because of their gifts.
Church membership is not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about who wants to be in a relationship. In church, we are invited to share life with people who are different from us: theologically, politically, racially, economically, sexually. And when we choose to be together, even when we disagree, we grow in grace and love and humility. This is the beautiful invitation of church membership.