If you were asked to “give a summary of the Christian faith on the back of an envelope, the best thing to do would be to write the Lord’s Prayer:” advice from Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury. More than any creed, more than any book of theology, this simple short prayer expresses the fullness of Christian faith.
The Lord ’s Prayer is deceptively simple. It’s short. We are Episcopalians. We like short prayers, especially in the summertime. We especially like the Lord’s Prayer, because we know the words. I have known the words since I was a small child in Sunday school, and we said the words in every class, right after we sang a song about thanking God for all creation. The song was very much of the time, the early 1980s. I don’t remember all the words. I remember there was a butterfly who thanked God for her fine wings, a fuzzy wuzzy bear who thanked God for his fuzzy wuzzy hair. I don’t remember the words to the song. I do remember all the words that we prayed after the song because we prayed what Jesus taught us: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come…”
The words we have today come from Luke’s Gospel, and they’re not quite the familiar words that I memorized in Sunday school. The Lord ’s Prayer we say here at St. John’s is based on a translation of Matthew’s poetic version of the prayer Jesus taught. Using my logic from just a moment ago, Episcopalians really ought to grab hold of Luke’s version, it’s even shorter than what we say on Sunday mornings:
“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 indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
That is a short prayer. I’m going to shorten it even more Episcopalians. I think everything beyond the first two lines is really just commentary on those first lines. Asking for our daily bread, forgiveness, of sins remembering that we also must forgive, asking that our faith not be tested, these are simple requests, that flow from the assertions made in the first two lines: Father, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come.
Father: Of course as Julian of Norwich wrote in the 14th century: “As truly as God is our Father, so truly God is our Mother.” The importance of this address is not in the gender, but the parental familiarity, the informality. Traditional practitioners of the Jewish faith at the time of Jesus were apt to start prayers with long formal addresses to God. “Blessed are you Lord God, King of the Universe…”and they’d go on from there. This is the difference between someone calling upon “The rector of St John’s Church, Lafayette Square, the Rev. Dr. Luis Leon, Reverend Sir.” or saying, “Hey Luis.” (I used Luis’ title because it’s a lot longer than mine.) Jesus uses the familiar for God, which would have been scandal to his contemporary rabbis. As such, Jesus intimates that God is close to us, very close to us, closer than our own breath. God, in the eyes for Jesus, is accessible, available in every moment, familiar.
Hallowed be thy name: this may seem like a throwaway phrase. Why would we ask God to keep God’s own name holy? God doesn’t need to keep God’s name holy. We do. The line recalls the first and greatest commandment. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your strength, with all your mind.” If we do not keep God’s name holy, we keep something else holy. The writer David Foster Wallace once said to the graduates of Kenyon college, “in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.”
Foster Wallace goes on to list several other things that people in our day worship. Power, intellect, the list goes on. He finishes with this sentence: “the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.” Father, Hallowed be thy name. The line takes us out of the default settings. “Father, hallowed be thy name.” When you pray, Jesus taught his disciples, you put God above all else, you re-order your universe around God. You re-prioritize God above all else.
Thy Kingdom Come. I once attended a lecture by the great Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, who said this was the most frightening line in all of scripture. He said our prayer these days was not “thy kingdom come.” Instead, our prayer today is often, “Our Father, who art in heaven, STAY THERE!” Stay there. We’ve got this God. Thanks for the offer. We like our kingdom just as it is. The line follows directly from the preceding line. If we hallow the name of God, if we put God before all else, we begin to allow God to transform us, to transform our world, to transform the whole cosmos. Thy Kingdom Come asks us to admit that the world as it is, is not the world as it should be. Poverty, war, famine, racial discrimination, gender inequality, homophobia, bullying, take your pick.
As they say in AA, the first step is admitting you have a problem. Today we might not need as much convincing. I was recently home in Colorado, and we went up to our family’s place in the mountains. Some of my favorite memories from childhood involve playing in the forest around our cabin. It’s still beautiful there in Grand Lake, but visiting also tugs on my heart because the forest is largely dead now. Once, green pine trees stretched further than the eye could see. The mountains are now covered with the grey of dead trees. Our rising temperatures allowed a pine beetle to lay waste to the forest. You don’t need to convince me of the truth of climate change. I’ve seen it with my eyes, and smelled it in the air. When I was a kid, my whole State didn’t try to burn down every summer.
Praying “thy kingdom come” in those dead forests asks God to restore God’s rule, to bring life where human action, and human inaction, have brought death. I said that this prayer is deceptively simple. It’s short. It is simple to say the words of the Lord ’s Prayer, but praying “thy kingdom come” involves us in unimaginably complicated work. Praying “thy kingdom come” means taking on the challenges our world faces, seeking to reconcile our broken world, our fragile planet, to the hopeful vision of justice and life, God’s vision, God’s kingdom.
I mention climate change because there is an assumption in Jesus’ words today about what God’s kingdom looks like, an assumption about hospitality. Right after he teaches the disciple’s the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus tells this funny story about the man who won’t get up to help his neighbor host a guest. In the biblical world view hospitality is paramount. A middle-eastern person would understand how poorly this man is behaving. I also need to mention hospitality because we hear Sodom and Gomorrah mentioned today. For a few centuries, not long in the history of the Bible, but for a few centuries church leaders have been teaching that Sodom’s sin was sexual. It wasn’t. The story of Sodom is not about loving same-sex sexual activity. Sodom’s sin was a lack of hospitality. The people of Sodom wanted to do violence to their visitors. God destroys Sodom because God could not find 50, 40, 30, 10 people who showed hospitality.
Thy kingdom come asks us to make the world MORE hospitable. The world God envisions is more conducive to life, and life abundant. Can you imagine such a place? Can you imagine a world where ALL people are welcome, where all people feel welcome? Rich or poor, straight or gay, woman or man, black, white, brown, every skin color in between. Smart, not so smart. Athletic, not so athletic. God imagines a world that welcomes all. Thy kingdom come involves us in imagining this world, and welcoming all of God’s people. Thy kingdom come involves us in working to make this planet more hospitable to life in all of its varieties, to literally heal the earth so that life can continue on this fragile planet.
Father, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. I have been praying these words since I was a little kid in Sunday school. I suspect you have too. These are the words that have been prayed at the greatest celebrations in the greatest Cathedrals in Europe, and they have been prayed in the most personal defeats in the most humble fox-holes of creation. These words are prayed every time an airplane takes off. These words prayed before middle school tests, and by people facing difficult diagnoses. These words of prayer are words of solidarity with Christians across the planet from every walk of life, and words of solidarity with followers of Jesus across time and eternity.
Early in my work here at St. John’s I was visiting a young woman who was dying of brain cancer. The cancer had left her basically comatose. She hadn’t spoken in days, but when her mom and I prayed the Lord ’s Prayer, she stirred, and we saw her lips moving. And this wasn’t the only time I have seen someone near death surface to join in praying the words Jesus taught.
Father, hallowed by thy name. Thy Kingdom Come. These words stick with us. They remind us that we are loved by a God who is familiar to us. These words ask us to return to God, to hold God’s name holy above all else, and these words invite us to become involved in God’s work. The work to make this world more hospitable to life in all its forms and varieties. The Lord ’s Prayer is deceptively simple, but praying this short prayer over and over has the power to lovingly complicate our life, to transform us, and to transform our world.