PRAYER IN THE MIDST OF VIOLENCE: CENTERING OUR LIVES
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
Lections: Colossians 2:6-11; Luke 11: 1-13
Imagine yourself entirely alone. You have you have just arrived in a city, where you have rented a room in a flop house for a week. There’s a bed, a chair, and a chest of drawers. There’s also a closet. The bathroom is down the hall.
You don’t know anyone in the city, and you have very little money. You remember that you have a family, but you don’t remember where they are. You want to pray. You think there is one spot in the room that will be best for prayers, but you don’t yet know where that spot is. Maybe you should move the chest of drawers. There’s a window. The room is dirty. You should always stand when you pray.
For the moment, you say the Our Father. This is the prayer Jesus taught to his disciples. You, too, are a disciple; a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. You are entitled to pray this prayer. When the disciples asked Jesus, teach us how to pray, he gave you this prayer. Jesus did not ask you to form your own prayers. Instead, he asked you, using his prayer, to form yourself, in the image of God.
The version of the Lord’s prayer in Luke is not as familiar as the liturgical prayer we are more accustomed to saying. Luke recalls a more intimate prayer, when Jesus used the bare bones language of His personal relationship. Our short prayer is addressed to the Father. “When you pray,” Jesus said, “say:
“Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.”
Jesus has been praying by himself, and the words of the prayer he gives to his disciples are for us to pray when we are by ourselves. The prayer can be repeated over and over again. Its six lines contain the heart essence of Jesus’ teachings. Had we been disciples of John the Baptist, we would have prayed differently. For instance, we would not have called God Abba. By addressing God as Abba, pater, we lay claim to our inheritance. We are children of God, heirs of his kingdom.
Our relationship with God is intimate, so it is fitting that our prayer begins with petitions not for ourselves but for God:
“May your name be hallowed,
May your kingdom come.”
The word Hallowed means sanctified. We are praying that God alone may be set apart for glory. “May your name be sanctified, may your kingdom come.” That is, may the mission Jesus has begun –the inauguration of the Kingdom of God – succeed entirely. Something very special happens when we pray for God: in no small part, the Kingdom is advanced; we arrive, we find ourselves where we are meant to be, as if we were a point on a map of a supercluster of galaxies. And then we find ourselves listening for God.
Only now do we make petitions for ourselves. By praying for God, we have centered ourselves. The happy discovery is that, having found ourselves, we require little else. We say, “Give us each day our daily bread,” but the words of the prayer have a more nuanced structure: we ask, “Our bread for the day give us day by day.” Jesus did not teach us to be anxious about the future. Jesus did not teach us to put aside what we don’t need now for another day when we might be short. Bread, artos, should be eaten fresh; if we have more than we need, a surplus, we should share it, first with the household of God, then with the world. We should trust God to keep giving us what we need. But do we?
There was a man, who had worked all his life, and saved all of his money. He was a real miser when it came to his money. Just before he died, he said to his wife, “When I die, I want you to take all my money and put it in the casket with me. I want to take my money to the afterlife with me.” And so he got his wife to promise him, with all of her heart, that when he died, she would put all of the money into the casket with him.
Well, he died. He was laid out in the casket, in the funeral home, and his wife was sitting there, dressed in black, and her friend was sitting next to her. When visiting hours were over, and just before the undertakers got ready to close the casket, the wife said, “Wait just a moment!”
She had a small metal box with her; she came over with the box and put it in the casket. Then the undertakers locked the casket down and they rolled it away.
When they got out to the car, her friend said, “Girl, I know you were not foolish enough to put all that money in there with your husband.” The widow replied, “Listen, I’m a Christian; I cannot go back on my word. I promised him that I was going to put that money into the casket with him.” “You mean to tell me you put that money in the casket with him?” “I sure did,” said the wife. “I got it all together, put it into my account, and wrote him a check; if he can cash it, then he can spend it.”
When we talk about bread, we are usually talking about money. Money is a medium of exchange, and whatever we use for money, gold or paper, we trust that it will keep its value, more or less, over time. Sadly, we discover, whatever we say to the contrary, that we trust money to provide daily for our present needs more than we trust God’s provision. We disregard the clear and practical sense of the story of Israel, in the wilderness, fed by manna. That is, like the idolater with the golden calf, we sin. No sooner do we petition God for our daily bread than we are compelled to ask God to forgive our sins, for we have no intention of trusting God day by day. Instead, we cling to the illusion that we can trust ourselves. We have no intention of living in God’s Kingdom: we are listening for God with the same breath that we are lying to God:
“Our bread for the day give us day by day,
And forgive us our sins.”
We would like to be forgiven, no doubt, but we immediately follow one lie with another. We say, “For we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” This we know to be untrue; still, it seems more likely that we prove capable of some degree of forgiveness than capable of being honest about our lack of trust. Our problem is with the sense of the words: when we say, “forgive us our sins,” the word for sin, hamartia, means wrongdoing. When we say, “for we also forgive everyone who sins against us,” the word for sin, ophello, means debt. When we go into debt, we’re talking money; and when we are lenders, not borrowers, how likely are we to forgive loans that we have made? Rather, we compound our wrongdoing, insisting on repayment of a surplus we have lent out, because we had no present use for it.
As we come to the conclusion of our short prayer, its words sink in; we realize how distant we have become from our Abba, and we make our third petition for ourselves; we say,
“And lead us not into temptation.” Here the sense is, “And do not lead us into that which is a trial.” The time of trial is not only the future day of judgment; it is all the past and present tests of our fidelity and opportunities to grow.
Jesus, I think, is under no illusions about the difficulty of saying the Our Father; this is why he intends it to be frequently repeated. The story he tells illuminates the difficulties of the prayer. Who could you call at midnight for three loaves of bread? In the story, the man with a need would have been trusting God for his daily, and without setting anything aside, was unable to help his friend. So he wakes another friend at midnight for help. This friend may not want to respond out of friendship, but he will help, because of the man’s “shameless audacity.” Likewise, Abba, father, if our persistence rises to the level of audacity, will answer our petitions: we will receive daily our bread, our wrongdoing will be forgiven, and our trials will be manageable. More, even, will the heavenly Father give to those who ask.
The character of God is love, and when we pray, God loves us. We are never entirely alone; the solitude we imagine is a place of trial, the wilderness of a rented room in a city where you have just arrived.
You use the bathroom down the hall and move the bureau. You have an icon of Jesus you prop up against the wall at the bureau. When you pray, first you pray for God, then you make three petitions for yourself. You feel surer about where you are standing. The window is open, and you hear sirens. You are listening for God. You are praying that the sins of the world may be forgiven. And because you pray, you love God, and you grow in your love of God. You are “rooted and built up” in this exchange of love, established by faith, “just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”
We need to want to conform our conduct to the teachings of Jesus and always to be vigilant. When we trust God, rather than ourselves, we are going against the grain of the world. The theory and practice of money and credit in American society are properly regarded as instances of “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” God will meet our daily needs. If we do not trust God, we cannot experience the fullness of love. We cannot be confident of our deliverance by love. Even then, however, we can be persistent. We can welcome our trials, and the opportunities for growing in knowledge and discernment where love abounds. We can begin again to center our lives on God. Amen.