Sermon for Epiphany 7 Narrative

Matthew 14:13-33

Today we move from stories that Jesus told to stories about miracles that Jesus performed. After Jesus told parables in chapter 13, he returned to his hometown of Nazareth, where, when the people heard him speak, they rejected him because they had known him as a boy and didn’t believe that God was really with him in the things that he was doing and saying. Then after that story, Matthew shifts the scene back to John the Baptist. King Herod had imprisoned John because he had been saying that it was unlawful for Herod to be married to Herodias; she had divorced Herod’s brother Philip in order to marry Herod. Also, just a note that this King Herod is the son of the Herod who was king and ordered the babies in Bethlehem to be killed when he heard from the Wise Men that a new king had been born. This family was not very creative in coming up with names for their sons. In any case, Herodias held a grudge against John because of what he’d been saying, and when Herodias’ daughter pleased Herod by dancing for him, Herodias urged her daughter to ask Herod for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod did as his stepdaughter asked, and John’s disciples took the body, buried it, and then went and told Jesus what had happened.

And this is where our Gospel story today picks up. “Now when Jesus heard this, . . .”; “this” meaning that John the Baptist had been executed. Remember that John had baptized Jesus, and John was seen as the one preparing the way for Jesus. So, Jesus had an intimate connection with John, and he would have taken the news of John’s execution very hard. When Jesus heard that John had been executed, “he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” Yes, he went to grieve, but he probably also went to pray, and to reflect on his own ministry and where God was calling him to go. Jesus knew that he, too, would be violently executed, and I think he knew that John’s execution was a sign that his own death was getting closer. He probably wanted to be alone to grieve for John, but also to do some serious mental preparation for the continuation of his ministry and his own eventual death.

But what happens next? Those pesky crowds. They “heard it”; either they also heard about John’s death, or they heard about where Jesus had gone, and they decided to follow Jesus, intruding on his solitude in that deserted place. Now, if that had been me, I would have been really annoyed. I’m an introvert, and I need my quiet time, and especially after hearing about the execution of someone I cared about, I’d want to be by myself for a while. But Jesus does not respond to the crowds with annoyance. Instead, when he sees the crowds, he has compassion for them. He puts aside his own feelings and his own needs, and he heals those among them who are sick. And when his disciples tell Jesus to send the crowds away so that they can get something to eat, Jesus does not say, “OK, yes, I’m ready to be by myself now.” No, he responds with continued love and compassion and tells the disciples to give the people something to eat.

And this is the part I find fascinating about Matthew’s account of the feeding of the 5000: Jesus doesn’t say, “Oh, don’t worry about it, I will feed them.” No, he expects his disciples to feed all of those crowds. 5000 men, with even more women and children with them. And the disciples said to Jesus, “Um, rabbi, do you know how many people there are sitting here? All we have are five loaves of bread and two fish. That’s not going to go very far. How are we supposed to feed all these people?” But Jesus doesn’t bat an eyelash at this seemingly insurmountable problem. He blesses the bread and the fish, and then he gives them to the disciples. The disciples are the ones who give the food to the people, and somewhere along the way, they discover that the little that they had is more than enough. It’s so much more than enough that they’re able to gather up twelve baskets full of leftovers. All of this from five loaves of bread and two fish.

Here in our four struggling congregations in Steelton, Oberlin, and Highspire, I think we often feel like the disciples did on that day. We feel like we don’t have the resources to do what God has called us to do. We are tired; we are aging; and we say, “Jesus, we only have five loaves of bread and two fish; how do you expect us to feed all the people who are in need around us?” And yet, as we look around, we find that Jesus has given us enough to do what we are called to do. At Salem, we were able to gather enough food and clothes to have a free community service day in January, and we had more than enough to serve the people who came. Also, at Salem, we were able to open our doors to Rose’s Communities of Hope group, allowing them space to come and to be healed from past hurts, and to worship God in a manner best suited to them. At St. John’s, we have hosted Family Promise and coordinated volunteers from all 4 churches to help minister to families in need of shelter. We have also literally fed people at community breakfasts and community dinners in conjunction with St. Nicholas Serbian Orthodox Church. And I know the congregations of Trinity and St. Peter’s can tell similar stories about Jesus blessing what they think are meager resources to minister to a larger group of people. Jesus blesses what we have, and it always enough to do what Jesus calls us to do, no matter how little we think it is.

After this, Jesus makes the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead toward the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He finally dismisses those pesky crowds, and he gets some quiet time by himself to pray, and to grieve the death of John the Baptist. But when he’s ready to rejoin his disciples, the boat was already far from the land. Well, no problem for Jesus, because he just starts walking on the water towards the disciples. Now, we have this image of Jesus just kind of ethereally floating on the water, feet barely touching the churning waves, and not getting wet at all. But I heard a description this week that I’d like for us to imagine for a moment: what if Jesus walking on the water was kind of like us floundering through a foot of snow? Sometimes we’d get our footing, and sometimes we’d slip and fall into the snow, but then get up and keep going. Now picture Jesus struggling through the waves of water like that: sometimes having firm footing and sometimes slipping and falling into the water. I don’t think that takes away from his miracle of walking on the water at all; he’s still walking and not swimming. I just think it makes Jesus more human to go along with his divine act of walking on the water.

So, when Jesus comes close enough to the boat with the disciples in it, they think they’re seeing a ghost. And Peter cries out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Think back for a moment: this is the same language that the devil used to test Jesus back in chapter 4: If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread, for example. The question here is this: Is Peter doing the same thing as the devil did? Is he testing Jesus and daring him to do something stupid? And when Jesus tells Peter to come on, does that mean that he fails the test? I’m not sure I have the answer to that one, and I think it’s something for us to meditate on in Bible study and private devotion.

But what I want to focus more of our attention on is this: the traditional interpretation of this scene praises Peter for taking the risk of getting out of the boat and following Jesus. There are whole studies for revitalizing the church based on this idea that sometimes we have to get out of the boat, and, unlike Peter, keep our eyes focused on Jesus, and we will do miraculous things, too. There’s just one problem with this: Peter loses faith, begins to look around, and sinks like a rock (remember also that the name Peter means “rock”). And this happens to us, too: no matter how boldly we might start a risky new venture, soak it in prayer and trust in Jesus, at some point we will look around and see that things are not going as we had hoped and prayed, and we, too, will begin to lose faith. So, I have serious doubts about the merit of this interpretation, and I don’t think this is what Matthew intended when he told this story.

Instead, I think, we need to look at it like this: in the history of Christian symbolism, a boat very often symbolizes the church, especially tossed about on waves as the church is often tossed about in the world. Despite the storms that beset the church, however, the church offers protection for all who shelter within it. Therefore, Peter getting out of the boat means he is leaving the protection of the church and striking out on his own, and even though he initially walks on water and keeps his eyes on Jesus, without the support of the Christian community around him, he sinks and depends on Jesus to rescue him and bring him back to the boat. And, when they get back into the boat, the storm stops. Therefore, the point of this story is not to get out of the boat and take risks for Jesus; it is, rather, to stay in the boat, with the support of the Christian community, and trust that Jesus will come and keep his church safe.

And, this, I think is what ties these two stories together. Jesus gives us more than enough to do what we are called to do, and as we serve him, he calls us to stay together and to support one another, and he promises to be with us always, keeping his church safe from harm. What great gifts these are! To trust that we have enough—and more than enough—as we embark in ministry, telling people the great good news that Jesus is with us—all of us, black, white, straight, gay, sinner and saint alike—and gives us all that we need, including the gift of one another. Look at the person sitting next to you in the pew today. That person is God’s gift to you, your sibling in Christ. God uses the gifts and talents of each one of us to help one another through life and also to reach out to others and bring them into the safety of this community in Christ, so that they may experience the love of Jesus through us. And that is worth praising and thanking God for. Amen.

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Sermon for Epiphany 6 Narrative

Matthew 13:24-43

Today we jump from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount over several chapters in Matthew and land on Jesus telling stories, or parables. Both the Sermon on the Mount and the parables are forms of teaching, but different forms: whereas the Sermon on the Mount laid out in pretty plain form what Jesus expects his kingdom to look like, the parables are using metaphors, or word images, to describe what God’s kingdom looks like. And with metaphors, we have to play with them a bit, turn them this way and that, and try to discern what Jesus is telling us about his kingdom. But, before we get to those parables, let’s take a few moments and fill in what’s happened in the life of Jesus in between the Sermon on the Mount and his telling these stories about the kingdom.

After Jesus comes down the mountain, he continues his healing and his teaching ministries. Included in that are the healing of the centurion’s servant; Jesus stilling the storm when he and his disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee, and the casting out of demons from a man into a herd of pigs. Jesus also calls Matthew, the tax collector, and when the Pharisees complain, he tells them that he has come to call sinners, not the righteous. Jesus then raises a little girl from the dead and heals a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. He continues his healing ministry, and then, determining that the disciples have learned enough for the moment, he sends them out on their own to proclaim the good news. Then John the Baptist, who was in prison, hears what Jesus is doing and sends messengers to ask if Jesus is the one that he was expecting, or should the people be looking for someone else. Jesus responds by telling John what he is doing and how that is fulfilling the Scripture. Jesus then continues his healing and teaching ministry. While Jesus is doing this, the Pharisees begin to conspire against him, to destroy him.

Then, Jesus starts telling parables, beginning with the sower who sows his seed on all kinds of soil. We’re skipping over that one today, but we’re continuing with the images of farming in Jesus’ next parable, the weeds among the wheat. Most of us here today have not grown up on farms, and even though we live near a lot of farms here in central Pennsylvania, we haven’t spent enough time on farms to make these images work easily for us. So, I’m going to try and describe a little of what I experienced in Wyoming with the weeds among the wheat. In back of the place where I lived was a farmer’s field, and the farmer rotated crops in it each year. I loved the years when the farmer grew barley, because when the barley sprang up, it was like a living sea of green waving in the wind. I would walk Otis on the dirt road that ran by this field and it would feel so peaceful as I walked by this waving grass. But, if you looked closely, you could see other plants in among the barley stalks that were tall and green like the barley but were clearly not barley plants. From a distance you could not tell the difference and going in and pulling the weeds up would almost certainly mean pulling stalks of barley up as well. And the barley was a valuable cash crop: it was all sold to beer companies. So, pulling up the weeds before the harvest was definitely not something that the farmers wanted to do.

So, why does Jesus tell this parable? How is the kingdom of heaven like a field that has both weeds and good plants in it? Well, we do hear Jesus’ explanation of this parable at the end of our section today, and it’s a little harsh. Remember, though, that in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ story, Jesus is a refugee, having to flee from Bethlehem because of King Herod, having spent his early years in Egypt, and then returning not to Bethlehem but to the strange town of Nazareth. Psychologists say that children who grow up as refugees from violence have a very strong sense of good and evil, and they divide people into those categories a lot. A person does not move from the evil category to the good category very easily, in the mind of a refugee child. And so, we find Jesus telling frequent parables in Matthew of how, at the end of the age, people will be divided into those categories, and the ones who are evil will go where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

But I think there’s more that we can gain from this parable than the separation of good and evil at the end of the age. And here it is: just like it was very difficult to tell the weeds from the good barley plants in the field out in Wyoming, it is often very difficult for us to tell who the good people are and who the bad people are here on earth. And so, as we heard last week when Jesus told us not to judge, we are called to leave the judgment up to God and the angels at the end of the age. They will be the ones to separate people, not us. Therefore, we are called to follow Jesus and to love one another while we are here on this earth. And when we get frustrated with all of the evil going on in the world, we are to trust that one day, Jesus will return and will set all things right.

From the parable of the weeds among the wheat, Jesus then talks about the kingdom of heaven being like a mustard seed. Our Thursday morning Bible study has been studying Jesus’ parables, and we had the parable of the mustard seed a couple of weeks ago. When I went to Greece and Turkey last year, we traveled past many fields where mustard plants were in bloom, and I’m going to take a moment and pass this picture around so you can all see it.

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What I discovered in that Bible study session is that we all know mustard as the yellow stuff that we see in bottles in the grocery store, but we don’t know that it actually comes from this plant with yellow flowers. Mustard is good for more than stuff that we eat, too. It’s also used for medicine. But what’s even more interesting about this parable is this: mustard seeds are not the smallest seeds, as Jesus says, nor do the mustard plants grow into trees. So, what’s Jesus talking about? Is he simply a lousy botanist, or is there something more going on here?

Perhaps the kingdom of heaven grows like a mustard seed does: from something small into something big, that overflows the boundaries of the fields and turns into something unexpected. Perhaps the kingdom of heaven provides healing for people, just as the mustard plant was used in a plaster to provide relief for chronic aches and pains. Perhaps we get a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven when one person starts something small, like helping another person to find work, and that gradually turns into something big, like an organization that helps many people in need by preparing for interviews or training for jobs. Or perhaps the kingdom of heaven is simply found in ordinary things of nature, like a mustard plant growing, and in the ordinary work that ordinary people do. Any and all of these interpretations are good ones; and perhaps in prayer and devotion, you may find another interpretation that the Holy Spirit suggests to you. This is the way that metaphors work, and as long as the interpretation is a good and healthy one, then I think Jesus would be pleased.

Lastly, we move from the parable of the mustard seed to the parable of the yeast. And when Jesus is using this image, he is not talking about those little packets of yeast that sit in our refrigerator. Have any of you made sourdough bread from scratch? If you have, then you will know that there is something called sourdough starter. This is a fermented mixture of flour and water, containing a colony of microorganisms that include wild yeast and lactobacilli. It doesn’t sound very appetizing, does it? This is most likely what the woman in Jesus’ parable is mixing into flour in order to make bread. So, is the kingdom of heaven like this disgusting-smelling and -looking stuff that, when mixed into flour, turns into something that tastes delicious? That’s an odd way of describing it.

But what about the amount of flour the woman is using? Three measures does not mean three cups. Three measures of flour means between forty and sixty pounds. That’s more bread than any one family can eat in one sitting. So, does this mean that the kingdom of heaven is going to have more than enough food for everyone who comes in? Perhaps, but here’s another question: the woman in the story is not mixing the yeast into the flour. Rather, the Greek word is the word for “hiding”; the woman is hiding the yeast in the flour. So perhaps this means that the kingdom of heaven starts out as something that is hidden, and then it is revealed just as the flour is revealed to have yeast in it when it becomes bread. Again, any of these interpretations are possible.

The weeds in the wheat; the mustard seed; the yeast in the bread. There is one thing that these images of the kingdom of heaven have in common, and that is this: waiting. With the weeds in the wheat, the servants must wait until the harvest comes before they can reap the wheat and separate the weeds out from the grain. When the person sows mustard seed in his field, he must wait for it to grow and take over the field, and he must let it alone until it is ready to be harvested. And when the woman hides the yeast in the flour, she must wait for the dough to rise and to become bread before it can be eaten. This is the encouragement that we can take from these parables. When we get frustrated with the evil that we see in the world; when the efforts that we make to spread the kingdom don’t seem like they will ever be enough; when numbers are few, God tells us to wait. Because right now the kingdom of heaven seems very small, but one day—in God’s time, not ours—the kingdom of heaven will come to fulfillment, and everyone will then find shelter, security, and more than enough to eat. That’s a hope that’s worth waiting for, and worth participating in. Amen.

 

Sermon for Epiphany 5 Narrative

Matthew 7:1-14, 24-29

It was the fall of 1992, and I was a freshman newly arrived on the campus of Middlebury College in the small town of Middlebury, Vermont. I was taking classes and getting to know new people, and I’d already gained a boyfriend. Life was exciting and full of possibilities. But then, something happened that was a challenge for me. You see, I’d been brought up in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, which is a more conservative Lutheran church body. Among one of the things that had been drilled into my head as I was growing up was that homosexuality was wrong, and I knew all the Biblical texts used to support that statement. The challenge during my freshman year was this: many of the friends that I had gotten to know since I had arrived on campus started coming out of the closet, and declaring that they were gay, lesbian, or bisexual. I didn’t know what to do: I loved my friends, but here I was with this belief about homosexuality that I had been brought up with. It seemed like I would have to either give up my faith or give up my new friends, and I didn’t want to do either. The technical term for this situation is cognitive dissonance: the mental discomfort experienced by a person who holds two or more contradictory ideas, beliefs, or values. How could I reconcile my belief that homosexuality was wrong with the belief that my new friends were good, creative, cool people?

As I was praying over this and trying to figure things out, I landed on this verse that today’s Gospel lesson starts out with: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” I clung to this verse as a lifeline; a way out of the cognitive dissonance I was experiencing. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” After all, I had my own issues that I had to deal with, and who was to say that my friends’ issues were any worse than mine? So, when I decided to leave the judging up to God, that meant that I could keep my faith and get to know my new friends better, to understand where they were coming from, and to hear what they had to say about who they were. I can’t say that my beliefs were changed overnight. But gradually, as I got to know my friends better, I came to understand that their sexuality was part of who they are, and that God had created them as much as God had created me. When I gave up the need to judge in this instance, God broadened my horizons and let me experience a part of creation that was much different from anything I had known beforehand, but that was just as beautiful.

Now, I’m not saying this to sound “holier than thou”. I think that’s an implicit danger in preaching on this text: I can say don’t judge people in one case without realizing that I am still judging people in another case. Judging is something that we do daily when we look at other people. We judge, for instance, whether someone might be a threat to us. We make judgments about people based on the type of clothing they wear: we know about what kind of income a person has based on whether they’re wearing jeans and a top versus a nice evening dress. Or, if not income, at least where they might be going or what they might be doing. But even then, our judgments are not always right. For example, someone might be carrying a bag with a Bloomingdale’s imprint on it, but instead of items purchased from that department store, they may be reusing the bag to deliver clothes to a local community aid organization. Sometimes the judgments we make are correct, and sometimes they are not. And Jesus is warning us about how we make those judgments and why.

Remember that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is his inaugural speech, where he is laying out what life in his kingdom, with his followers, should look like. And his kingdom is not going to look like any earthly kingdom. Those who are considered blessed by God are not the ones who are wealthy and famous, but rather those who have had the breath knocked out of them; those who are meek, and so on. The commandments of old are tightened up, so that people genuinely care for one another beyond the words of the law. Prayers are centered on God first, and then on the needs of the community as a whole rather than our individual needs. We are not to worry about anything, but we are to seek God’s kingdom first and trust that the rest will be given to us. And now the community is told that we are not going to flourish if we sit in judgment upon one another for things that are not important.

Things that are not so important in the Christian community may be the way that someone who comes to worship dresses, or if they dye their hair a strange color, or if they dress as a woman, introduce themselves as a woman, but sound like a man. In these cases, we should put aside our judgment and be thankful that they have come to worship the Lord God who made them, and God’s Son who died for them. Other things can be more difficult: for example, the people who only seem to come to church events for the things they can get, like free food or clothes, but who don’t participate in the life of the congregation. But even then we are called to not sit in judgment, for which one of us has not come to a church event with mixed motivations? And how would we feel if our motivations were laid bare and someone were to sit in judgment on us? This is the kind of thing that Jesus is talking about: we should not be sitting in judgment of others without first being honest with ourselves over how we have fallen short of the commands of the Law. And if we are truly honest with ourselves, we will find many, many ways that we have not done what Jesus has commanded us to do.

But this then presents another problem: are there to be no standards in Jesus’ kingdom at all? If we are not to judge others, does that mean that anything goes? On the contrary. Jesus’ next teaching helps his community to figure these things out: Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. One of the problems that the English language has is that we have the same word for “you” regardless of whether it’s a singular you or a plural you. Our American Southern dialect gets around that by saying “y’all,” but most Bibles are not printed that way. And so, we look at a passage like this and think that Jesus is talking to each of us as an individual. Not so. In the Greek, the “you” in this section is a plural you. Jesus is talking about the community of believers who call on his name. When we, as a community, come to God in prayer, genuinely seeking God’s will and wanting to know if there is a certain behavior going on that we need to criticize, then God will be there for us and give us the answer that we need, so that the community can continue to flourish.

And finally, Jesus does give us, his beloved community of disciples, a standard to which we can cling: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” It’s easy for us to frame this in the negative, and some people have done that: “What is hateful to you, do not do to others,” said a famous rabbi by the name of Hillel. So, if we do not like being hit, then we don’t hit other people. If we do not like being shoved, then we don’t shove other people. This is the kind of thing that parents teach their 2-year-olds. But how do we frame this in positive terms, as Jesus did? How about this: a family has just lost everything in a house fire. Let’s put ourselves in that situation and ask what we would want to happen if that were us. We might appreciate help from friends in getting back on our feet. OK, so maybe invite the family over for meals. Maybe offer for them to stay in our house for a while. Perhaps give them gift cards for local stores to help buy them clothes. And it doesn’t have to be an emergency situation like that. Perhaps you have a new neighbor who isn’t familiar with the city. Knock on her door, introduce yourself, see if there’s anything she needs or any questions you can answer for her. A positive interpretation of the Golden Rule gives more opportunity to actively care for one another and even to expand Jesus’ beloved community-kingdom.

Furthermore, this rule is the standard for us to fall back on when we wonder if we’ve become too judgmental. If we find that we are worried about someone or something in our community, and we find ourselves gossiping about it and causing more strain, then the first thing we need to do is to step back and ask ourselves if we are treating the person involved as we would want to be treated. If the answer is “no,” then we need to ask forgiveness both of God and of the person involved. Then we need to go to God in prayer, as a community, and ask for God’s wisdom in dealing with the situation. Later in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives us guidelines for handling those difficult situations as well; please read Matthew 18 to see how Jesus suggests doing that. For now, it is important to say that even then, Jesus says we should handle problems in a communal way with prayer and discernment.

Jesus closes out his Sermon on the Mount by telling us to not just hear his words, but to put them into practice. This includes all of his teachings, not just the ones that we have talked about today. As sinful human beings, we know how difficult this is. Even when we do our best, our best often falls short. Jesus knows that, and that is why the most important part of his kingdom involves love and forgiveness. Jesus gave his life on the cross to show us how much he loves us, and through that death, we know that our sins are forgiven. Life in Jesus’ kingdom involves the same kind of love for one another and forgiveness of one another for our sins. So let us be slow to judge and quick to pray, and let us be quick to love and forgive one another as Jesus has loved and forgiven us. Amen.

Sermon for Epiphany 4 Narrative

Matthew 6:7-21 [25-34]

This week, we hear another portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. After opening with blessings which describe who will be considered blessed in the kingdom of heaven, and describing how the community of people who follow him will be considered the salt of the earth and the light of the world, King Jesus continues his inaugural speech by talking about how he has come to be the fulfillment of the law, and then tightens up those commandments that were given to the people of Israel in ancient times. We have skipped over that section of chapter 5, but I encourage all of you to take a look at it, because that is the section where Jesus tells us things like, if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; and then try and reconcile it with that image of a loving Jesus that we all have. It’s not an easy thing to do, and so in your prayer life, I encourage you to wrestle with God about that. And perhaps that’s why the next thing Jesus turns to, after he tightens up all those commandments, and after telling us to love our enemies, and to not proclaim our generosity in the streets as the hypocrites do, is to turn to prayer, and to teach us how the community of those who follow him should properly pray. This is the Lord’s Prayer that we say every week in our worship services; that we say to conclude our council meetings, and that we say in our private devotions. In fact, we say it so often, it has become rote: something that we don’t examine very deeply. But today, that’s what I hope to do: to actually look closely at the words of the Lord’s Prayer and ask ourselves what it is we are saying when we say these words.

So, the first thing I’d like to do is to ask what prayer is. And, to help us with that question, I want to refer to an episode of The Big Bang Theory that aired a few years ago. Sheldon’s mother is in town visiting the gang and goes with some members of the group to tour churches in the area. When they enter a Catholic church, she decides that they ought to stop for a moment and pray. Sheldon’s mother starts the prayers off by thanking God for the gift of her son, Sheldon, and thanking God for giving her the patience to deal with his many quirks. But then, when each of the rest of the group speaks, they ask for help with their problems: Penny asks God to help her brother to stop dealing drugs; Leonard asks for help with his girlfriend; Howard doesn’t say anything at all, and Raj asks for help to lose some weight. When Sheldon’s mother remarks that maybe Raj should have asked for help in talking to women, and Raj starts to do that, Howard says, “No, you only get one wish.”

Now of course, a remark like that gets a lot of laughs. But, how often do we come to God with a laundry list of the things that we wish God would do for us? I’m reminded of a scene from the movie “Bruce Almighty,” where the character of Bruce, taking on God’s job for a little while and inundated with all of the prayer requests, simply says yes to all of them. And it creates chaos because, for instance, everyone wanted to win the lottery, and so they all won—but got a dollar apiece.

When Jesus teaches his disciples the proper way to pray, though, he turns the idea of prayer around. Instead of asking God to give him something, Jesus begins by centering the prayer on God. He begins by saying, “Our Father in heaven.” Now, I would like you to notice two things about this profoundly simple opening to the prayer. First, the word, “Father.” In the Greco-Roman world, the gods were to be approached with fear and trembling and sacrifice. They had the power to do you good and the power to do you harm, and there was no personal relationship with them—what they did to you was entirely dependent on how they were feeling that day. For Jesus to call God “Father,” and to tell his disciples that it was okay for them to call God their father was to tell them that, as Martin Luther says, we can talk to him just as loving children do to their loving father. We have a personal relationship with God. The second thing that I want you to notice about the opening to this prayer is the little possessive pronoun “our.” God is not just my father, but he is your father and your father and the father of every single Christian in this world, from those of us who live in comfort to those who are homeless; from those of us who are citizens to those of us who are refugees. God is our Father, which means that every single Christian in the world, even those we have never met and never will meet in this lifetime, is our brother and sister. And that means when we talk to God and address God as “our Father,” we should not only be thinking of what we need, but also what our brothers and sisters in this country and around the world need as well.

After the address to “our Father,” the first petition of the prayer asks for God to hallow God’s name, or in modern English, to make God’s name holy. In Lutheran fashion, we ask, “What does this mean?” Well, let’s look around. Because of our sinful human nature, we have not made God’s name holy. As one example, the thing that has been in the local news and has caused a scandal is the revealing of the widespread child abuse perpetrated over many years by Roman Catholic priests. But lest we think this is exclusive to Roman Catholicism, it does happen across all Christian denominations as well. Any time there is an instance of child abuse or any other kind of mistreatment of God’s children, it causes a scandal and people have their trust in God severely damaged. We human beings cannot make God’s name holy, and so therefore, we pray that God would make God’s name holy: that God would be God and would reveal Godself in our lives and the lives of everyone here on earth.

The next petition is one which is very powerful, but which rolls off our tongue in three little words, that, if we stopped to ask ourselves what it means, we might be frightened: Your kingdom come. In the words of James L. Bailey from Wartburg Seminary in Iowa, “God is called upon to bring the fullness of God’s reign here on earth as the manifestation of divine love and justice that will sweep away all evil and injustice and be acknowledged by all peoples” (Contrast Community, 96). Well, that sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Who doesn’t want evil and injustice to be swept away? Who doesn’t want all people to acknowledge God’s reign? But what happens if we are the ones who are perpetrating that evil and injustice? Even if we are doing it unknowingly, because we might be swept up in a system that perpetrates evil and injustice? Then that petition for God’s kingdom to come becomes frightening. Bailey further writes that when we say these words, we are also “pledging [our]selves to welcome this coming kingdom and be transformed by it, a reign of God that [we] are already experiencing—though in a veiled way—in the ministry of Jesus Christ” (ibid.,96). In other words, believing in Christ is not just something we say with our words. We also want to be transformed by everything that Jesus did and taught, so that as we live out our lives, we participate in the coming of God’s kingdom. This means things like speaking out against the evil and injustice we see around us and working to change broken systems. Martin Luther writes, “In fact, God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.” This is what God’s kingdom coming looks like.

The next petition, “Your will be done,” is one that we say but we’re never quite sure what it looks like. What does it look like for God’s will to be done? What is God’s will? On an individual level, talking to God in prayer on a regular basis is the way to see what God’s will for your life might be. When we pray on a regular basis, God opens our minds and hearts so that we can see God at work in the world: both in our individual life and in the community around us. In a world full of evil and injustice, we start to look for those stories of people’s lives changed for the better, of a once-broken system being repaired so that more people can flourish. We begin to see that God’s will includes everyone on this earth having the abundant life that Jesus came to bring and flourishing together in harmony. And we begin to surrender our own lives to God’s will so that God might bring peace and harmony to us and to all of those around us.

Only after the prayer centers itself on God: God’s name, God’s kingdom, God’s will, does Jesus turn to requests for our needs. And if you notice, the needs expressed here are not for winning the lottery or a fancy new car. “Give us this day our daily bread.” Notice again the plural here: God, please provide not only for my needs, but also for the needs of all of my brothers and sisters in Christ. “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” We’re going to spend more time on this in an upcoming Sunday where Jesus tells a story of a servant who does not forgive as he has been forgiven. For right now, it’s important to note again the plural pronoun—us—and that God’s forgiveness of us seems to depend on how we’ve forgiven those who have sinned against us. This is something for us to pray on and ask ourselves: Is there someone in our lives who we need to forgive, or to ask forgiveness of? And finally, we ask God to not bring us to the time of trial, or testing, but rather to be with us and to rescue us from the power of the evil one. Perhaps here Jesus is remembering his time of testing in the wilderness with Satan, and praying that, just as God was with him during that time and saw him through it, that God would also be with us and see us through times of trial.

When we look at it more closely, we see that this prayer that Jesus taught so long ago is actually a very radical prayer, with its focus first on God and not on what we need, and then phrasing our needs in terms of community rather than individual needs. And this should be the model for all of our prayers: we should ask first what God’s will is; ask first that God’s name be made holy; ask first that God’s kingdom come, and then ask for the things we need and for the things that our neighbor needs. Our focus should not be only on what is going on in our individual lives, but also on how our lives intersect with others, and what others need. And the beauty of it is this: while we may be praying for someone else, that person may just be praying for us. And so God knows what all of God’s children need, and responds to us all because God loves each and every one of us. And that is good news for us indeed. Amen.