Sunday, May 7, 2006
Matthew 6: 7-15
The prayer that we have come to call the Lordís Prayer appears in two places in the Bible: the 6th chapter of the gospel of Matthew and the 11th chapter of the gospel of Luke.† The context and setting for the prayer in each gospel is different. Both have important things to teach us. Both are important to help us understand the significance of the Lordís Prayer. I would like us to think about the Matthew passage this week and the Luke passage next Sunday.†
In Matthew, the Lordís Prayer is offered as an alternative to other ways of praying.† Matthew quotes Jesus as saying: ďWhen you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the rest of the world does. They think they will be heard if they talk a lot. Do not be like them because God already knows what you need.Ē
So what we come today to call the Lordís Prayer is offered in Matthew as an example of an alternative to heaping up empty phrases.†
Sometimes we donít like to admit this, but sociologically religion has its roots and origins in magic.† Human beings, when we began walking upright and maybe even sooner, began to understand very quickly that we are vulnerable creatures. There are a lot of things in our world that we cannot control.† We cannot control nature. We cannot control disease. We cannot control whether or not we will have a good harvest and whether there will be enough food to survive through the winter. We canít control fertility. We canít control death.†
So early humanity began to experiment with ways to try to control the things that are out of our control and that make us feel vulnerable. If I pray to the sun, will I maybe get a better crop?† If I make a statue of a bull and pray to it, will I be more fertile and have more children?†
Two things actually emerged out of this: one of them is religion and the other is science in the broadest term.† Science became the effort to learn how the universe works so that we might do what would actually change the world in such ways as to make us less vulnerable.† Praying to a bull might not increase our fertility, but through scientific understanding of the world we have figured out how to increase our fertility. Praying to the sun might not assure us good crops, but we have learned other things that will help us to make it more likely that we will have good crops and have enough food to make it through the winter.†
Religion evolved out of the same impulse, but religion turned in another direction and asked another question, which is: what kind of people, individually and communally, do we need to be spiritually and ethically in order to live meaningful lives in the world in which we find ourselves?†
Science is the attempt to understand and influence the world around us, so that we might make the world a safer place and feel less vulnerable.† Religion is the attempt to understand ourselves, individually and communally, in order to figure out how to live rich and meaningful lives in this world.
The kind of praying that Matthew has Jesus critiquing is the kind of praying that thinks that by pleading or begging or pounding away or trying to make bargains with divinity that we are going to get the world to give us what we want.† What Jesus was trying to teach in Matthew was an alternative in which prayer is a way that we shape ourselves and we shape our communities of faith, not so much magical praying as mindful praying.†
Now let me admit that there is still a lot of magic in religion.† I would not actually want it otherwise because I think the world is sometimes a magical place beyond our understanding.† There is a lot of magic in religion.
In some branches of Christianity, a traditional crossing oneself in order to remember the cross of Jesus Christ became a physical way of praying that we might be shaped by the cross of Christ. But I suspect that when a baseball player crosses himself before going up to bat, whatís in his mind is not ďPlease, make me more like Christ.Ē†
So, there are things that we do as part of our religious life that have elements of magical thinking in them. That is because the world is a mysterious place. I have seen too many miraculous things happen in peopleís lives to be scornful of the idea that prayer can make a difference in what happens in the world around us.† But Jesusí point in teaching the Lordís Prayer was to teach his disciples a prayer that had more to do with shaping who they were than with influencing God or changing things in the world.
God already knows what you need, Jesus says to his disciples, so donít focus on trying to get from God what you want.† Instead, focus on praying in such a way that you will become what God would want you to be both as individuals and as a community of disciples.†
That is why Jesus teaches his disciples the Lordís Prayer. If you look at the Lordís Prayer, this is what it does.† First of all, it reminds us to pay respect to God, to be respectful of God: ďhallowed by thy name.Ē†
Then, it focuses next on what God is doing in the world, not on what we want, but what God is doing in the world: ďThy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.Ē† It focuses on us aligning ourselves with what the sprit of God is trying to do in the world.
Then, it asks for what we really need in the way of material things: bread for today, our daily bread, because thatís really all we need, our daily bread.† It doesnít ask for a big pension fund. It just asks for what we need really, which is our daily bread. It reminds us that that is all we really need.
Then, it reminds us to be forgiving of others because we need Godís forgiveness for ourselves.† The purpose of the prayer is to shape us, to make us what we need to be and to come to bring us into a right relationship with God.† It is a model prayer that helps to shape us.†
There are other ways of praying Ė those are the alternatives to which Jesus offered the Lordís Prayer.† We can pray prayers, and sometimes I have, that leave us as self-centered and as focused on ourselves and as selfish by the time weíre done praying as we were when we started.† We can pray prayers that leave us as anxious or actually make us more anxious after weíre done praying than before we began praying. †We can pray prayers that leave us as discouraged and as defeated by the time weíre done praying as if we hadnít prayed at all.
The purpose of prayer is always to focus us more on God and others than on ourselves, to cause us to take greater responsibility for the world around us and for our lives than to leave us feeling either passive or sorry for ourselves.† The purpose of prayer is to leave us more trusting of God and the universe.† When we understand this, that prayer is a way of allowing God to shape us, then we can understand that there are a lot of things that are prayer.† Anything that leaves us more caring, more accountable, more faithful is actually prayer. Talking to a friend can become a prayer.†
I donít know how often I have had some of the most profound prayer of my life come across a table from someone at Trioís. †Watching a movie, not every movie, but watching some movies can become a form of prayer if it leaves us more caring, more accountable, and more trusting in God.† Even our work can become prayer, if it focuses us on God and others, if it engages us in working for a world that is more true to Godís will and Godís kingdom and if it leaves us more confident of God and the universe in which we find ourselves. Even our work can become prayer.†
The Lordís Prayer serves us best as we read it and pray it, the Lordís Prayer serves us best by helping us to think about the outcomes of praying: who we are called to be, what we are called to become, how we should live. If we can learn from this how to pray individually and together, not just when we are speaking words but when we are living our lives, the apostle Paul told us to pray without ceasing, to pray without ever stopping so that everything we do every moment of our life helps to shape us to be more Christ-like and more in right relationship with God. Everything we do becomes prayer. Everything we do in our life becomes the Lordís Prayer.