A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church
Aug 21, 2016
Deanna preached a lovely sermon last week using Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. This morning, we heard Matthew’s. They are similar, but they are not the same.
In Luke, the prayer is offered at the request of a disciple who asks Jesus to teach them to pray.
In Matthew, Jesus is addressing great crowds of people and the Lord’s Prayer is just a small component of his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount.
In Luke, the prayer just begins with “Father”. In Matthew, it is “Our Father in heaven”.
I’ve been thinking of the immense difference it makes to add the “in heaven” to the prayer, as Matthew does.
It locates God in a particular location. Heaven. And that location is not here.
For much of modern history, the world had an “elevator” cosmology. We’re on ground level here on earth. If you go up a few floors, you’re in heaven. If you go down a few floors—well, you don’t want to do that. We have heard that Hell is not a good destination.
And while it is clear that God is bigger than we understand, and more mysterious than we can name, it can also lead us to feel that God is far away and removed from our lives, even as the also unknowable and mysterious Heaven seems a good home for God. A mysterious deity living in an unknowable place.
It can lead to an image of God only being far off and at a remove, casually watching the newsfeed of human joys, tragedies, and daily routine, uninvolved in our lives.
In the 20th century, we went through two World Wars, killing millions of people and displacing millions more—60 million people displaced after World War 2 alone. As people watched the Holocaust, and dealt with their grief and loss, the elevator-going-up understanding of the cosmos stopped working for people.
And so they questioned it. Much like Job.
Where is God?
Where is God in tragedy?
Where is God when people face violence?
Where is God when God’s people cried out for help?
Those may seem like obvious questions to you, because we ask them often, but for much of recent history, when “Heaven” was always the presumed answer to the question of where God was, the question wasn’t always asked by the church.
If God is up in heaven, what is God doing while God’s people suffer here on earth?
In the mid-20th Century, Christian ethicists like H Richard Niebuhr were pondering the relationship we as humans have to what he saw as the competing authorities of Christ and Culture. He observed Christians approach the relationship in different ways—Christ against Culture, Christ of Culture, Christ above Culture, Christ and Culture in paradox, or Christ transforming Culture.
In most of those observations, God is somehow at odds with earthly life and culture. For Niebuhr and many other 19th and 20th century theologians, God was above human history.
Jesus himself, of course, should have kept us from focusing our attention solely on Heaven when asking the question, “where is God?” By walking among us, by teaching us to pray, by showing us how to live, and by dying to show us how to love, Jesus was God in the flesh—the incarnation—and solidly answered the question of where is God by saying “God is with us”.
And long before Jesus, prophets and poets spoke of God in the still small voice, and in the beauty of the earth. The psalmist wrote:
“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me fast.”
I’m grateful that for every time we pray “our Father in heaven”, we can also see God is with us on earth as we celebrate our joys, and we know God is mourning with us as we mourn deaths and tragedies on earth.
There were two stories in the news this week that made me think of how we see God, our Father in heaven, in the midst of our earthly life.
You may have seen the picture of Omran Daqneesh, a small boy, pulled out of the rubble of his home in Aleppo, Syria after it was destroyed by an airstrike. He’s one of the lucky ones, because over 18,000 people from just his city alone, have died in the last five years of the Syrian civil war. I heard this morning that his 10 year old brother, who had also been pulled from the rubble, died from his injuries later this week. I look at his face, blankly staring at the camera in shock, and my heart breaks again.
I also believe that the answer to the question of “Where is God?” is that God is right there next to Omran, also dusty, in shock, and in pain. Not for a minute could I conceive of a distant God whose heart wouldn’t break at that photo.
When we pray “Our Father in heaven”, we also pray, “Our Father on earth, angry and sad in the middle of our human violence”.
The other news story I noticed this week was when three American women swept the Olympic 100 meter hurdle race in Rio. The gold medalist, when speaking to NBC after the race talked about God almost entirely. Here’s what Brianna Rollins told NBC:
“I just kept God first and just continued to let Him guide me throughout the rounds. We formed a prayer circle this morning and we just let His presence come upon us.” They prayed, she said, that God would “just help us come out here and continue to glorify Him and do the best that we can and that’s what we did. I’m just so excited; we are blessed,” she said. “I’m grateful to God.”
For Brianna Rollins, her experience of God is not just a Sunday morning worship experience. Whether you or I would describe it as she does, for her, God is in the midst of her track running. When she prays, “Our Father in heaven”, she also prays, “Our Father in hurdle jumping”. And I would clearly need a lot of prayer in order to jump over those hurdles the way they did it.
The Lord’s Prayer, itself, is not to blame for our fixation on locating God in heaven and forgetting to look for God on earth because the prayer continues with:
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
And I think the church, broadly speaking, has been remiss in recent years to remember the “your will be done on earth…” part of the prayer.
If we look around at the world around us, we might not know exactly what God’s will be done should look like, but we can be clear what it is not. God’s kingdom is not:
God’s kingdom is NOT the “isms” of sexism, racism, agism, etc—any dividing of people based on class or physical characteristic.
God’s kingdom does not include the “phobias”— where fear of “the other” lead us to forget we are in this journey together.
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are claiming our intention to join in the work of making visible how God’s kingdom will be done on earth as it is in heaven. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are claiming our intention to tear down the walls that divide us, and promising not to build new ones.
It would be so much easier, as Deanna mentioned last week, to pray that our will be done. It would demand less of us to just meet our own whims and preferences. By agreeing to pray for God’s kingdom, and not for our own agenda, we make a subversive claim—a claim against the ideal of amassing personal prestige in order to seek something bigger than ourselves.
People often wonder why fewer and fewer people associate with particular religious traditions in America. People are more likely to identify as having no religious affiliation or to be DONE with organized religion. Almost every time I meet people in non-church settings, and identify myself as a pastor, I hear some version of “I was raised in _________church, but now I’m more spiritual”.
I rarely hear people say they don’t believe in God at all. They have just stopped finding God in church.
I wonder if the message that “God is only in heaven and if you want to see God, you better live right and get to heaven yourself, no matter how poorly God’s followers behave here on earth” is one reason why people walk away from the conversation, choosing a vague spirituality over a clear experience of judgment and exclusion.
Jim Rigby, a Presbyterian minister in Texas wrote:
“As I’ve said before, teaching religion in the present age is like trying to teach baseball to people who have already been beaten with the bats.”
I can’t fix the world through sheer force of my will, though the Lord knows I’ve tried. What I can do, though, is keep praying the Lord’s Prayer, while attending to the words.
I saw this cartoon recently and it both made me laugh and seemed very familiar.
And I think that’s a risk we have with a prayer so familiar.
Before he offers that prayer in the sermon on the mount, Jesus tells people:
‘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. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.’
If God already knows what we need before we ask him, we can do more than just offer a list of our needs and concerns.
It frees us to pray as a way to start a conversation with God, listening for how we can join in to seeking God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.
It frees us to pray to for the reminder to look around at the world and be on the lookout for heaven on earth. Because we know God is not removed and uninvolved in our lives. The God who sent his son to live among us, to teach us to pray, to show us how to live, to die to show us how to love—this God is on earth as he is in heaven.
May we reflect his love to the world, and do our part for his kingdom. Amen