“Our Father…”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

March 10, 2019

Matthew 6:9-13

 

Do you remember when you learned the Lord’s Prayer?

For me, it wasn’t until I was in high school.  I grew up attending a Unitarian Universalist church where this prayer was not part of our worship tradition.  I think I knew it existed, and I had certainly heard it when I attended worship at other local churches, but its words were not written on my heart by any stretch of the imagination.

And then, my junior year of high school, a classmate I had known since elementary school was driving too fast on a winding country road, and he missed a curve, and his car met a tree head on.  Many of us went to his funeral at the local Catholic church.  I had attended other funerals there, but somehow, that day, when everyone prayed the Lord’s Prayer and I didn’t know the words, I knew I was missing out on something.  I could feel the power in those ancient and oft-prayed words.  I could feel the presence of the great cloud of witnesses, of people of faith across time and space who had prayed those words before and were somehow praying them with us in that heartbroken moment.

So when the funeral was over, I went home and looked up the Lord’s Prayer, and I copied it down on a piece of paper, and I read it over and over to myself until I had committed it to memory.  I couldn’t have told you why, exactly, but I knew it was important, knew it was a source of connection somehow, knew I wanted to be part of that.  But even then, I don’t think I really thought about what it meant.  I knew the words were sacred, knew the connection they provided was holy and deep.  But what exactly was it I was praying?

Your story of learning the Lord’s Prayer is likely different from mine.  Perhaps you learned it in Sunday School, perhaps from a grandmother or uncle or other beloved relative, perhaps you don’t remember ever not knowing it, perhaps you didn’t know it until adulthood.  But whenever and however you learned it, if it is written on your heart, if it flows from your lips effortlessly, if you are like me, it may be that it has become so familiar that, at least some of the time, you pray it without thinking, or even without being conscious of what you are praying.

Now, this is not bad!  There is power in prayers that are embedded deep within us, power in the way they can bring us deeper into our souls, deeper into relationship with our kin in Christ’s family, deeper into the presence of the Divine.

And, at the same time, those familiar words can sometimes be uttered by rote, without intention or attention, just going through the motions.  And so, in this Lenten season, we will call our attention to those familiar words and phrases.  We will wonder together about what those ancient words mean for us today.  We will explore our connection to our ancestors in faith who have prayed this prayer, all the way back to the earliest disciples and to Jesus, who taught them to pray.  And we will try praying different version of this prayer in the weeks to come, to see how it might feel to pray those familiar themes in not-so-familiar words.

We will focus on a phrase of the prayer each week, diving deeper into what it means, what it says about God, what it asks of us.  We begin today with the first sentence:  “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”  This first line tells us at least two important things.  And the first thing it tells us is something important about who we are.

 

The prayer begins, Our Father…  Not my father, or your father, or any particular individual person’s father, or even Jesus’ father… but our father.  The Creator not just of me, not just of the ones I like, not just of the ones I love, not just of the ones I admire, not just of the ones I consider my kin, but of everyone.  The One who knit together not just the ones whose eyes and hair and skin and faces look like mine, not just the ones whose tongues speak a language I can understand, not just the ones who share my ideas or values or perspective or persuasion, not just the ones who love the way I do or express their gender the way I do or build their families the way I do, but every person in the whole human family.  The One who breathed to life not just this congregation, not just this denomination, not just this faith tradition we cherish, but all creation, all that was, and is, and ever more shall be, world without end.

If this prayer we pray every single Sunday, week in and week out, is to be believed, then every person under heaven is literally, spiritually, our kin.  If we share the same Divine Parent, then we are all related.  And if we are all related, then I must have the same care and concern for the detained immigrant child that I have for my own child.  I must have the same care and concern for the black man targeted unjustly by police that I have for my own brother.  I must have the same care and concern for the retiree who had to pick up a job greeting at Walmart to make ends meet that I have for my own mother.  I must have the same care and concern for the woman sweeping a dirt floor in El Salvador, or planting rice in Vietnam, or giving birth in a refugee camp in Syria, or fighting opiate addiction here in the Quiet Corner—I must extend to all of them the same care and concern that I have for myself.

Because every one of them is as much God’s child as I am.  Because every one of them shares my spiritual bloodline, my divine DNA.  Because we have a common ancestry in the family of God.  Because every one of them is, in the truest sense, my child, my parent, my sibling, my family.  Because I pray to Our Father, who art in heaven.

 

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  This first line of the Lord’s Prayer tells us something important about who we are.  And it tells us something important about who God is, too.

This first line of the Lord’s Prayer—Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name—tells us that we are all part of God’s family.  It tells us that God as Parent is our originator and our care-giver.  It tells us that even as we are invited into close and familial relationship with God, God is also far beyond us, in the heavens, with power and perspective wider than our minds can comprehend.  It tells us that God’s name is sacred, holy, sanctified.  But it doesn’t tell us what God’s name is.

In the Hebrew scriptures that Jesus knew and loved, God’s name is never fully revealed.  It shows up as four consonants with no vowels.  In the original language, it is unpronounceable, though some Christians have transformed it into Yahweh or Jehovah.  Our observant Jewish friends do not speak the name aloud, but say HaShem, which is Hebrew for “the name.”

There is just one story in the Bible where a human dares to ask God for God’s name.  In the book of Exodus, chapter three, Moses is in the wilderness tending his father-in-law’s flocks, and God appears to him in a burning bush.  After getting Moses’ attention in this dramatic way, God commands him to take off his shoes, for he is standing on holy ground.  And then God commissions Moses for a rescue mission, to bring the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.  God sends him to Pharaoh to tell that tyrant, “Let my people go.”

Moses, understandably, has some questions.  “Who am I to undertake this?” he asks.  “And, forgive me, but who are you?”  And God answers with one of the most enigmatic phrases in the Bible.  The Hebrew says Ehyeh asher ehyeh (אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה).  The forms of the words are unusual and hard to decipher, but the phrase comes directly from the verb “to be.”  It can be rendered in a number of ways:  I Am That I Am.  I Am Who I Am.  I Will Be What I Will Be.  I Will Cause To Be What I Will Cause To Be.  I Will Be Who I Am.  I Am Who I Will Be.  Or, as some more creative and poetic translators have written, I Will Be What I Want to Be, or I Exist and Fulfil My Promises, or I Will Be What Tomorrow Demands.

That enigmatic statement of identity, that nameless name, tells us that God is the very essence of being.  God was, and is, and ever shall be.  God is limitless, unbound by time.  God is cause and effect all at once.  God is whatever, however, whoever the situation demands.  God defies naming, perhaps because to name God would be somehow to diminish God, to domesticate or tame the One who is, by nature, beyond name, beyond comprehension.  When we pray, hallowed be thy name, we know God’s name is holy, but we don’t know what God’s name is, perhaps because if we knew God’s name, our expectations would limit our ability to perceive and encounter God in all the places and times and ways God shows up.  And the God whose name is I Will Be What Tomorrow Demands knows better than to give us a name that would distance us from the very One we seek.

Just as my son has gone through phases where he called me by different names, so our names for God may change as we grow and evolve through the course of our lives.  Just as my brother and I have the same parents yet call them by different names, so the wide variety of God’s children may call God by different names.  The beauty of this first line of the Lord’s Prayer is that it makes room for all of that—for the variety of names for the one eternal God, for the variety of children in God’s one family.

Yet still we can pray together (though sometimes in different words), Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name

 


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