What makes a sermon, a sermon?
I’ve long held that the mere writing of a sermon, words on a page, don’t actually make it much of anything. A sermon is only a sermon when it is proclaimed among and for God’s people within the context of worship. The prayers, music, and even presence of individuals make the sermon what it is because the Holy Spirit delights in making the words proclaimed from the pulpit God’s words for us.
And so, I have a sermon that is not really a sermon. I prayed over these words and put them together for the first Sunday of Lent, but became sick prior to Sunday morning and asked Eric Anderson, the Director of Next Gen Ministries at Raleigh Court UMC to preach it on my behalf. I am thankful to serve a church that is willing to pivot when necessary and to work alongside Eric who, admittedly, probably did a better job preaching “my” sermon than I would have had I been well enough to do it.
Here’s the sermon I wrote and that he preached…
Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name.
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.
When we pray, if we pray at all, we usually do so because circumstances have convinced us that we are completely and totally alone, and that we have to navigate and figure out our circumstances alone.
This is my fault and I have to fix it.
No one knows what this feels likes, which is why no one else will understand it.
If I just pretend this isn’t happening, maybe it will all go away.
And all of those lies begin to unravel with the words, “Our Father.”
Jesus is in the middle of his Sermon on the Mount. It begins with blessings, and talk of salt and light and law. Jesus warns his disciples about practicing their piety publicly. And then, without much warning, he teaches them (and us) how to pray.
When you are praying, Jesus says (notice, Jesus assumes they/we are already a praying people. What’s important is not that we ought to pray, but that we ought to pray a certain way).
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.
In other words, don’t puff your prayers up with all sorts of adjectives and adverbs. You don’t need to sprinkle all that fancy stuff on top because, Jesus says, your Father already knows what you need before you ask.
And yet, when you pray, pray this way:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, and we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trail, but rescue us from the evil one.
What a peculiar prayer.
Notably, this isn’t the only prayer in the Bible. The psalms are filled with prayers. Any speech toward God is a prayer, so when Peter is encountered by Jesus and says, “Go away from me Lord for I am a sinful man,” he is praying. Jesus tells stories about prayer, and rebukes others for the way they pray. And, in Luke’s telling of the Gospel, Jesus teaches this prayer, though the words are a little different, not in the middle of a sermon, but because the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray.
Among the many things that might describe what it means to be Christian, to be disciples of Jesus Christ, at the very least we are people who pray. We understand prayer to be important, whether we can articulate it or not. We speak to God and we listen to God.
Contrary to how we might imagine it, living a life of faith isn’t about adhering to a certain set of beliefs as much as it is learning how to pray.
Karl Barth once wrote, “To be a Christian and to pray are one and the same thing; it is a matter that cannot be left to our caprice. It is a need, a kind of breathing necessary to life.”
And yet, among all the prayers in scripture, both the Old and the New Testaments, and among all the prayers we might discover in something like The Book of Common Prayer, even our own extemporaneous prayers, this prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, is what makes prayer possible.
It is, admittedly, a bit strange to pray to God as Father. For, even since the beginning of the church, Christians have understood that God is beyond our human understandings of gender. God is neither male nor female. God is God.
And yet, for as strange as it is to refer to God as Father, it is far stranger that we begin the Lord’s prayer with the word, “Our.”
Our, of course, is often understood as a plural possessive pronoun, but when we say, “Our Father,” we are not communicating that God belongs to us. Rather, the our in the Our Father is a bewildering claim that God, the author of the cosmos, the One in whom we live and move and have our being, has determined to become our God. That is, God doesn’t belong to us, but we belong to God, together.
In other words, long before any of us reached out to God, God reached toward us, claimed us, and promised to make us God’s people.
It is never because of what we do or have done, but because of what God in Christ has done that we are able to pray, “Our Father.”
And it’s not just that we are able to pray those words, we are bold to pray them.
Does it feel bold to you to pray the Lord’s Prayer? I’ll be the first to confess that, as a liturgical moment in our worship every week, it can feel a little boring rather than bold, just another thing we have to do.
Hence this sermon series.
But there is a boldness to this peculiar prayer. We do well to not pray it lightly, or treat it as one more thing we have to do. It takes guts to pray this prayer.
It takes courage to address the great I AM who can make the impossible possible. As Buechner put it, “We can do nothing without God and without God we are nothing.”
And yet, we can boldly pray this prayer because we belong to God. God has intruded into our lives in spectacularly weird and peculiar ways in the person of Jesus… who teaches us this prayer. And the us is important.
Being Christian isn’t something that comes naturally, and its not something we can figure out on our own. Being Christian is a result of being initiated (through baptism) into a group of people called church who are shaped by this prayer.
Therefore, the our in the Our Father is admission that we are not alone. Even if we pray this prayer away from other people, the “our” is a stark declaration that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian.
We are bound to one another, and we are bound to God.
Can you imagine how different the faith would be if Jesus taught us to pray, My Father who art in heaven, give me my daily bread?
Our faith is a communal one where we cannot know what we are doing unless there is a we.
In other words, The Beatles were right, We get by with a little help from our friends!
Thomas Aquinas, the great Catholic thinker from the 13th century, is famous for quipping that we are created for no greater purpose than friendship with God. The our in the Our Father reminds us that we cannot pray without friends. This is why you can tell if someone is a Christian by who their friends are.
And, oddly enough, Jesus chooses us to be his friends.
It would be one thing if Jesus called us his servants, serving the Lord is a worthy task. But, instead, Jesus befriends the disciples and all of us.
And what is the surest sign of a deep friendship? Listening.
Do you have someone in your life who is a good listener? I hope so. I wouldn’t be where I am were it not for those who have been willing to listen.
And that’s exactly what Jesus does for us. But not just that, Jesus listens to our prayers, and Jesus responds to them.
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be they name.
The God we worship, the God we pray to, our God, rules from heaven. That we pray to God in heaven is important. For, it is the reminder that God is placed, located, and active. Our God is somewhere and that somewhere is different than where we are. But it’s only because of God’s location, that God is able to do far more than we could ever ask or imagine. From the throne of the cosmos God acts and it made known to us in ways seen and unseen.
Therefore, we pray not because it’s good for us, though it may be. Prayer is not self-help. Rather, prayer is the recognition that we need help from outside of ourselves. For, if it were all up to us, things would remain the same. We need others to enter and act in our lives just as we need the acting and enacting Lord of heaven and earth to make a way where there is no way.
We hallow God’s name, we call it holy, out of recognition that God is God and we are not. We pray to the Holy One because only the Holy One can make us holy. Otherwise, prayer is just empty words offered to no one but ourselves.
But the Gospel is a stark reminder that we are not alone. Our Father will not let us remain isolated and abandoned. Whenever we lift these words up, words straight from the lips of Jesus, the connections between us, one another, and the Lord are reconstituted and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Our Father reigns from heaven, God’s name is holy, and because of such, we can pray the rest of the prayer. Ultimately, we learn how to pray by following Jesus, who is God’s prayer for us. Amen.