Today begins a sermon series on the Lord's Prayer. Through five sermons on this topic, we will delve into the meaning of this prayer for our daily lives. It is my fervent prayer that you will find these sermons helpful and enlightening. Today, I begin with "Blessed Be Your Name." Next Sunday's sermon is: "God's Will, (not my will) Be Done."
In the late summer of 1941, the French intellectual, essayist and mystic, Simon Weil (1909-1943) entered for the first time into the endless green garden of prayer. Until that time, by her own admission, she had never addressed God silently or in words. She had never participated in worship or liturgical prayer. She had never encountered the Lord or His prayer. At the age of 32, Simon memorized the prayer in Greek. She recited it upon rising each morning and prayed it throughout the day while working in the vineyards. The effect was electrifying. In her words, "I was catapulted into a place outside space... where I discovered infinity to the second and sometimes third degree... a mysterious realm filled with silence... a presence I came to know as unconditionally Real." At times she would see Christ face to face. He would take possession of her with incomparable clarity and majesty. Simon Weil died a few years later of starvation and exhaustion among the workers in occupied France at the age of 34. But, her recorded epiphanies of Christ, her spiritual rebirth came about through her encounter with the "Our Father" as Simon and millions of Christians before and since refer to this offering of grace and love. ( Kisly, Lorraine, The Prayer of Fire: Experiencing the Lord's Prayer, Paraclette Press, Brewster, MA., 2004, pp. ix-x).
Of this prayer, John Cassian wrote in the 4th Century, "the Our Father contains the fullness of perfection. It was the Lord Himself who gave it to us as both an example and a rule. It raises up those making use of it ... to that prayer of fire known to so few. ...The soul lights up with heavenly illumination and no longer employs constricted, human speech. All sensibility is gathered together and, as though from some abundant source, the soul breaks forth richly, bursts out unspeakably before God, and at the tiniest instant it pours out so much more than the soul can either describe or remember when it returns again to itself" (Ibid, p. 1). While Simon Weil is experiencing the prayer for the first time in France, Dietrich Bonhoeffer of Germany writes of the prayer in the 1940's, "These words which come from God will be the steps upon which we find our way to God." (Ibid, p. xii). Whether experiencing the Unconditionally real presence of Christ face-to-face, or walking the staircase into the arms of God, this Lord's Prayer, since the earliest days of Christianity, has been the prayer that has guided saints and sinners, theologians and lay people, monks, ministers and members of Christian communities to the fruitful primacy of prayer.
Going back to the disciples themselves, you and I must note that those closest to Jesus didn't ask to become healers, preachers, story tellers or prophets. They didn't ask to become the next incarnation of God. They knew that Jesus' power did not come from some magical potion or portion of God in him. They knew Jesus gained his strength for living and loving through prayer. They had heard his parables of healing and grace. They watched him still the waters, raise the dead, heal the sick and blind. But, one day they asked him this simple question, "Lord, could you teach us how to pray?" One scholar has pointed out that the root meaning of the word prayer in Aramaic is "to lay a trap." Ironically, it is never we who lay a trap for God. To the contrary, in the words of Harry Emerson Fosdick, "If we fail to find God real, often it is because we are seeking God. And we are not prepared to experience God's presence until we realize that God is seeking us." Prayer is trust. It is trusting God. It is trusting God's majesty. It is trusting God's grace and love. True prayer, roots out all confidence in ourselves and placing once and forever confidence in God, to paraphrase St. Teresa of Avila.
Now, some of us are control addicts. If we even attempt prayer, we do so with very guidelines for God. We want to control every moment, every instance of our lives. We try to control our environment, our families, our children, every thing around us. We aren't (seemingly) happy unless we are in control. We say, "I need to be in control of my life." While St. Francis of Assisi is praying "Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace," the control addicts prayer is: "God, you are an instrument of my peace." In our control addiction, we have no peace. We have no joy. In fact our prayers go to die on an immense mountain of daily prayers collected daily by God and blown away into eternity each night which are not prayers to God, but in reality, are prayers to ourselves.
We may also pray "phantom prayers." A Phantom Prayer is a prayer never spoken. In a recent survey 25% of Christians said they never pray. Never! Add to that the number who weren't entirely honest when asked, and those who pray sporadically at best, and you find most believers in Jesus don't pray. Imagine a swimmer who never swims, a football team that never practices, an orchestra that never tunes its instruments, a farmer who never plants a crop, an artist who never makes a stroke of a pencil or a brush. That would be like complaining to the state of Ohio that I have won the lottery when I have never purchased a ticket. That is phantom praying.
Phony prayers are also problematic. A phony prayer is what Jesus refers to in Matthew 6:5 when he said, "Don't be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand in the synagogues and on street corners so that they may be seen by others." We preachers sometimes pray these prayers - putting on our best preaching voice and intoning words that sound beautiful but don't communicate with God. We receive accolades from people who "love the way we pray." But, unless these prayers come from the heart, they are phony.
There are also frivolous prayers. In Matthew 6:7, Jesus says, "Don't use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words." The word Jesus uses for "meaningless repetition" in the Greek is actually "Battalogeo," a word similar to the word "Babbling." Jesus did not want his followers to fall prey to babbling words with no meaning. We might reach this point in prayer, even with the prayer he gives us, if we are not paying attention to the words to which we give breath. All words and no heart gets us nowhere every time. Prayer is a precious privilege that allows us to have direct communication with God. That is particularly why I believe it is important to enter the Lord's Prayer with caution, with care, with compassion, with awe, with slowness of breath and fullness of heart. This prayer of fire is dangerously close to becoming a prayer of meaningless repetition in our age if we do not enter into it as a greatest gift from Jesus to his disciples, including each one of us.
Jesus offers the prayer to his disciples with care. He says, "with a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply. Pray like this: Our Father in heaven, blessed by your name...." In the opening phrase of this prayer, we encounter many things. First, "Our" emphasizes community. "Father" stresses significant and meaningful relationship, "in heaven" stresses authority and "blessed be your name" indicates a commitment to holiness.
The prayer is offered to Our Father. Jesus offended many people with these opening two words. First, he clearly offered all people a personal, intimate relationship with God for all time. Jesus was telling the whole world that God, whom Jesus acknowledged as "Abba," (the Aramaic word used by grown-up sons and daughters as well as little children to address their fathers), was not only his father, but "daddy" or parent to all. According to reknown New Testament theologian Joachim Jeremias, Jesus' use of "Abba" to address God is absolutely original to him. It is only possible with the advent of Jesus in this world and in our lives that the cry to "Abba" comes to be heard and known. As Christians, we cannot fully speak about God, but we can speak to God.
You and I could spend the rest of our lives blissfully wrapped in these two words, "Our Father." I say this because we have been given this intimate relationship with God by Jesus. He shares it with us completely. Discovering this relationship with God reminds me of the time in which an infant first learns to utter the words, "mama," and "dada." There is realization that those words are linked intimately to the most important people in the little ones' universe. Once this connection is made and the response of delight comes from mother and father upon hearing these first words, a child chatters the words endlessly - "dada...dada...dada ...mama...mama...mama..." Speaker and receiver smile and find joy in one another. I can envision the face of God, delighted by our discovery that we are in intimate relationship with the Creator of the Universe and each one of us.
Although we can live well in these two words, the prayer calls us onward. It calls us to no less than the gates of heaven and the blessedness of God's name. In the Third Century, Tertullian wrote, "The whole creation prays. The cattle and the wild beasts pray....the birds take flight lifting themselves to heaven, and instead of hands spread out the cross of their wings, while saying something that may be supposed to be a prayer, "Glory to thee, O God, glory to thee! - Thus the whole creation sings, Glory!" All creation reveres God's name. With this "Glory" we come to acknowledge that all we do, all we are, all the breath and life within us is gift from God and all glory belongs to God. Revelation 4:8 cries, "Holy, Holy, Holy, the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and is and is to come." And from her infinite wisdom gained from intimate prayer, Simon Weil speaks to us once more: "The Father's name is hallowed. That is reality itself. To ask for that which already exists...infallibly, eternally, and independent of our prayer, that is the perfect petition." (Ibid, p. 40).
And so we pray, "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name..." It is only the beginning of prayer which has changed the world and can change us, too. Amen.
Copyright 2005, The First Congregational Church