Rev. Mark Feldmeir
A burglar broke into a house in the middle of the night. As he tiptoed through the house, he heard a voice in the darkness. It said, “Jesus… is watching you.” The burglar froze in his tracks and waited quietly. He took another step, and again he heard the voice. “Jesus… is watching you.” Scanning the room with his flashlight he noticed a birdcage in the corner. A parrot was perched calmly in the cage.
“Was that you?” he asked the parrot.
“Yes,” the parrot replied.
“And what is your name” he asked?
“My name is Henry,” said the parrot.
“What kind of fool would name a parrot ‘Henry,'” the burglar asked?
The parrot responded, “The same fool who named that pit bull ‘Jesus’.”
For a lot of people, just the mention of the name God evokes images of a pit bull, unapproachable and fearsome and judgmental. Our images of God can be so daunting and intimidating that we don’t often know how to talk to God, to be with God. For a lot people it’s not easy to pray. Maybe you’re one of those people. You try to pray, but you find yourself searching for the right words, or tripping over your words, worrying about what kind of grade you’ll get from the divine judge.
Maybe you remember that scene in the movie, Meet the Parents, when Ben Stiller’s character, Greg, meets his fiancé’s parents for the first time and is unexpectedly asked to pray at the family dinner table. It’s an awkward moment, made all the more awkward by what he says:
“Oh dear God. Thank you. You are such a good God, to us, a kind and gentle, and accommodating God. And we thank you oh sweet, sweet Lord of Hosts, for the, smorgasbord you have so aptly lain at our table this day, and each day, by day. Day by day, by day, oh dear Lord, three things we pray. To love thee more dearly, to see thee more clearly, to follow thee more nearly. Day by day, by day. Amen.”
Jesus heard a lot of prayers like that in his day and, to his surprise, they were spoken by very religious people who seemed more interested in impressing others with their words than being fully honest and transparent before God. In the sixth chapter of Matthew Jesus says, “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to stand up in worship and on street corners so that everyone will see them… Don’t use a lot of meaningless words like they do, thinking you’ll impress God. Don’t be like them. Instead, go to your room, close the door, and pray like this…
And then he gave his followers a prescription for prayer, a model for how we are to pray. We call it the Lord’s Prayer. Some call it the “Our Father.” We prayed this prayer just a few moments ago. For generations, Christians around the globe have prayed this ancient prayer every day. We know it like the back of our hand; it’s about as automatic as the Pledge of Allegiance. But when we pray this prayer, do we really know what we are asking for? Frederick Buechner says that whenever we dare to utter these words, ‘it’s like letting the tiger out of the cage; it’s unleashing a power that makes atomic power look like a warm breeze.’
When we pray this prayer we’re uttering revolutionary words that have the power to change us, and the power to change how we relate to the world around us. This prayer gives us the words to ask God for what we need; but more than that, it gives us the words to express what it is we believe. And when we know what it is we really believe, we have a better sense of what we can ask of God, what is appropriate to pray for.
The prayer begins with these two little words that are packed with power and meaning for Christians: “Our Father.” But ever since the 1970’s feminist theologians have reminded us that our masculine images for God leave us with an incomplete, limited, and often misleading understanding of God. As far back as the Middle Ages women like Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen explored the idea of God as having both masculine and feminine attributes. And so for many people, the most difficult word in this prayer is the word “Father.” It’s not only true for women, but true for anyone whose real father is or was abusive, or absent, or distant.
In the 1980’s a team of researchers investigated how much time middle-class fathers spent with their children. First they asked the group of fathers to estimate how much time they spent with their children on a given day; the answer was 15 to 20 minutes. To verify these claims the researchers attached microphones to the shirts of small children for the purpose of recording actual conversations between fathers and children. The results were shocking. The average amount of time spent by fathers with their children was 37 seconds per day.
This was 1980, before the Internet, and the iPhone, and Facebook and a million and one sports channels on TV. We can assume that things have not improved since then.
Today, one-third of American children – 15 million kids – are raised without a father. For many children, the father is absent, not only physically, but emotionally. How do these realities shape the way we pray Our Father?
The original word for “father” is Abba. It means “Daddy” – it describes an intimacy, a nearness between parent and child. Jesus spoke the Aramaic language, and he chose this word for a very specific purpose. Abba was not a common way to address God for the Hebrew people. There were female gods among the pagan religions, and there were religions that worshipped multiple gods. There were other names for God in the scriptures, names that emphasized the power of God, the awesomeness of God. And yet in all of his prayers Jesus chose this name, Abba. It was the way Jesus began his prayers, and it’s the way Jesus invites us to begin our prayers, to a God who is “closer to us than we are to ourselves,” as Saint Augustine once said.
And so the emphasis of Our “Father” is not that God is male. The emphasis is in the word, Abba. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we are invited into the presence of someone who created us, who knows us, who loves us and lives with us. Paul writes, in Romans 8, that “When we cry Abba, Father, it’s the very spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God…”
A few years ago the Los Angeles Times ran a story about a homeless man in Compton who resurrected a Little League baseball program that had died more than thirty years ago. Tim Lewis grew up playing baseball at Compton’s Sibrie Field. While a few of his friends went on to play professional baseball, Lewis took the long, destructive road of addiction. He lost everything – his family, his job, his home. He now lives in his 1993 Toyota Camry, which he parks across the street from the baseball field. Lewis has been clean and sober for more than a year; he attends a church; he prays and reads his Bible daily.
Through his recovery Lewis found a passion and purpose: to restore the game of baseball to this small Compton neighborhood over-run by drugs and gang violence. Lewis organized fund-raising efforts, obtained a Little League charter, and recruited more than eighty players from the local elementary schools. He restored the ball field, once riddled with weeds and gopher holes, to playable condition. Children flock to his field. He prays with them before every game, encourages them, teaches them life lessons, using his own troubled past as an example. The news team interviewed the kids. One of them said, “Coach Lewis is like a Daddy to me.”
When we pray Our Father, this is the kind of God to whom we pray: One who is near, one whose joy is to bless and reconcile his children.
And that leads us to the most dangerous word of the entire prayer: the word, “Our.”
This is a prayer for Christians in community. Our tendency, in the spiritual life, is to see everything about this prayer as personal and private. Nowhere in the Lord’s Prayer do we find the words I, me, myself or mine.
Imagine, for a moment, trying to go one entire day without uttering the words, I, me, myself or mine. Could you do it? What would happen if we replaced the words I, me, myself, mine with we, us, ours? Just for one day, how would that change the way we see others, the way we relate to strangers? We would be closer to living out the true intent of the Lord’s Prayer.
Notice that it’s not my Father, but our Father. It’s not my daily bread, but our daily bread. It’s not my trespasses, but our trespasses.
People have told me over the years that they’ve come to church on a Sunday morning and just didn’t feel like praying, or saying these words. They come with grief, or questions, or even anger with God and don’t feel like praying. And I can say, “That’s okay. Someone else will pray them for you.” This is the power of the Our Father.
Sometimes we come to church with a sense of loneliness, or a disconnect from others. But the spirituality that Jesus gives us is one that we share with others. Praying, believing, working out our faith – these are experiences that we share with friends, with family, with people in a congregation.
Like many of you, I haven’t always been a United Methodist. I was raised Catholic. My family had a ritual every Sunday at mass. When it came time to pray the Lord’s Prayer we would hold hands, all four of us. I never understood why we did this, other than that it woke me up or kept me from scratching the enamel off the pew. We’d pray, “Our Father,” and there we were, holding hands. Only now do I understand why. My parents understood that when we pray as Christians there is no separation between us. God’s children look like a family, act like a family, pray like a family. We did this for years – even when I was sixteen and had a reputation to worry about; even at seventeen, when I would bring my girlfriend, who would later become my wife, to church: my father would reach over and offer his hand and I would blush; even years later, on my father’s last day of life, when we gathered in a hospital room, held hands, and prayed, “Our Father…”
This is the power of the Lord’s Prayer. It calls on the One who is Abba to us, the One who is as near to us as our very breath; and it draws us closer to one another, overcoming everyday boundaries, so that we breathe together with those who share that same breath. And it makes us one family, as Paul says in our passage from Galatians this morning: “in the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of a woman… so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.”
What Paul was saying was that, up until this “fullness of time,” as he calls it, there were boundaries between Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, male and female, rich and poor. But in Christ, the boundaries had finally been erased; the walls that once separated us had been torn down. And we’re now one family, with one Abba.
But we know that there are still walls that divide us. We live in an I, me, mine world, even as Jesus called us to an us, we, ours way of living. And so we not only pray this prayer, but we have to practice it.
I want to challenge you today to live out these words, Our Father, by committing to our November outreach project with Family Promise. You heard our speaker this morning tell you how important Family Promise is to the South Denver Metro area. You heard how St. Andrew will host dozens of people who don’t have adequate housing for their families. They’ll be here for two weeks, and they’ll need our hands and our hearts as we host them.
During Communion, you can come forward to the chancel and take a single brick from the wall, which will represent one of the more than 100 people needed for our November initiative. You can take that brick to the Family Promise table in the atrium after worship and sign up for a meal, or an overnight host, or a driver. And with each brick that is taken, the wall comes down – the wall between us and them, the wall between I, me and mine, and us, we, ours — so that what’s left is one human family, united by the Abba to whom we pray whenever we utter the words, Our Father.