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Pentecost 20B
Sermon Series on the Lord’s Prayer: 1: “Our Father in Heaven”
Matthew 6:5-13 (Romans 8:15-27)

by The Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

As you heard in the introduction, we embark this morning on a 4 week pause
in the lectionary readings to spend some time exploring in sermon,
and prayer, and music, the Lord’s Prayer.
And we’re doing so because a number of people have asked for it!!

There’s a profound sense among those who asked,
and among those generally who still do the church thing,
that this prayer matters.
We know it’s connected with Jesus somehow.
With the help of the men’s dramatics this morning,
we can now imagine one way in which this prayer may have been birthed
in a very human context,
of ordinary people who were trying to figure out
the relationship between the divine and humanity,
contemporaries of this spirit-filled man Jesus who knew
that this regular prayer practice he had seemed to make a difference.
His habit of finding quiet places to pray
plugged him in to some source of wisdom, peace, focus, perspective
that was so compellingly attractive to them, as it still is to us.

As I’ve been preparing for this sermon series,
I’ve discovered hidden gems,
and not a few mind-blowing, faith-shaping questions and challenges,
which I hope to share with you in these coming weeks,
but I’d also like to run with some of your questions and insights
about this prayer Jesus taught us.
To that end, you can see the topics I’ll be attending to,
listed on the back of the bulletin.
You can also find the topics listed on the latest post on the BeyondWoodandStone blog
where we’ll run a conversation thread on this prayer,
and of course there’s good old fashioned phone and face to face!

To get us started, however,
I’ve taken a leap of faith and supposed that I’m not the only one who
at various stages in my own faith journey,
has hiccoughed and stuttered through the first line of this prayer!
“Our Father in heaven”

Our Father in heaven.
Which bit gets you?
Perhaps it’s the Father bit,
for others it’s the notion of God being “in heaven.”
(As opposed to here with us, but I’m going to deal with that later in the series)
Not many of us trip up on “our,”
but according to Dominic Crossan,
(who has written an excellent book on the Lord’s Prayer called
The Greatest Prayer)
it’s worth a misstep or two…..

Think about it. Today, this prayer will be said by Roman Catholics,
Biblical inerrancy fundamentalist evangelicals,
Presbyterians, Anglicans,
Germans, Poles, South Africans, Russians, …..
and we are all praying to “Our” God.
All of us are claimed by this God as children!
This means that Christians who don’t believe like you do or I do,
are my sisters, your brothers in faith.
Imagine it!
By saying “Our,” we’re acknowledging that God has gathered
people in prayer who would normally be at each other’s
spiritual if not physical throats!
See what I mean by mind-blowing?!

The piece I really do want to get to today however
is the second word of the prayer in its English form:
Father.

Perhaps you will expect from me now a feminist
exposé of all the “problems” of using this word,
which has been called “paternalistic” and “patriarchal”
as if those two terms are necessarily
“bad words” akin to swearing.

“Father” is a reference to one who is ‘paternal,’
a particular form of family relationship which connotes love and care.
Again, “Father” in its first century context, as for much of Christian history,
has meant a ‘patriarch’ – the head of a clan, or tribe, or household
who is responsible for the wellbeing of all creatures who abide in ‘his’ land.
Paternal and patriarchal have not always been ‘bad’ words.

But for many the coughing is still necessary,
because of the misogyny that has so often accompanied
the less than divine manifestations of
“paternalism” and “patriarchalism”
in human societies.
Lest I lead you on, let me admit now, that I am NOT
capable of coming up with the miraculous solution
to a problematic address for God
in one sermon sound byte, or a life-time of them.

So I’m left instead with offering a testimony.
A set of snapshots of my own prayer journey with this opening
address of the Lord’s Prayer, not as some template or model,
but merely as a window into possibilities that we all have to
grow in our relationship with God through this prayer.

I began life as a Roman Catholic in the last days of the pre-Vatican II
Latin liturgy.
So I learned the Lord’s prayer in that alien tongue:
Pater Noster qui es in coelis.
This instilled in my six year old self
a sense of the mysterious otherness of God,
codified in the use of a holy language.
There was no grasp of the content of the prayer, the individual meanings of the words;
but what I did grasp was this awesome miracle….
I was speaking to God!
That sense of awe has never left me,
and each week that I invite you to join with me
and the cloud of witnesses who in all times and places
have prayed this prayer,
I tremble a little at this ability to connect humanity with God
through the spoken word.

The feminist awakening of consciousness of the
“Paternal problem” for me was slow.
My first problems were ones I share with many,
poor masculine role models somehow sullied the
gendered image of God, so much so that I went through a phase of
taking a deep sighing breath when the prayer began,
“Our………. art in heaven…hallowed…”
It was a quiet, private rebellion that really got me nowhere
significant, other than to hope that God could cope with
my refusal to engage him/her in direct address.
The result was a still distant, mysterious, now nameless Divinity.

Then in seminary I studied first century Romano-Judean culture,
and became satisfied that “Father” was a tip of the iceberg term,
a word so rich in meaning that it became shorthand for something that goes like this:
“Our Father-God- who is like a feudal household Chieftain, whose role is to protect all in his care,
to provide green pasture, food, shelter, livestock, livelihood, protection from enemies, entertainment
for long-winter nights, ensure my kith and kin are likewise safe, and who gathers and keeps us together
come-what-may…… but bigger, better, more just, more powerful, more loving than any human imitation could possibly be”…. in heaven, hallowed be your name!!!”

Then I became a professor, who had to help others like me struggle their way
to a living, praying relationship with this prayer that Jesus taught us,
for the sake of the communities they and I are called to serve.
Who knew, but it was this role that ironically pushed my head out of the books,
and my knees to the floor,
because you see,
you cannot logic your way into this radical address to God,
as Our Father in heaven.
You have to let your soul and heart lead to where Spirit resides,
in Jesus’ first utterance of this prayer, and now, where Spirit resides, in our own.
And soul and heart taught me this,
when my soul says “Our Father in Heaven,”
it is speaking, soul to its maker,
speaking, child to her father, her papa, her Daddy,
speaking, deep need to the only one who can heal and salve,
speaking, strong woman, or weakened woman to her source of strength.

You may be a “sigher” or a cougher, you may be one who is comforted
to call God Father, but whatever you do,
take up this gift, this miracle,
you, get to talk to God.
Our……… sigh,….. abba, father….. in heaven.

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