Monday, September 22, 2008

At the Heart of Everything Else

(This message is the first in a series, A Declaration of Dependence: The Lord's Prayer.)

Matt 6:5-13

This won’t come as much of a surprise to most of you, but I like watching some pretty nerdy science programs. PBS used to show different medical procedures. One of the best was a hip replacement surgery, where the ball at the top of the femur and the socket in the hip are replaced with a new connection that gives mobility and relief from pain back to the patient. The great part of this was that the tools they used looked like really clean versions of the tools I had for household jobs. It crossed my mind that I could perform that surgery, though I’m happy to say I never tried it.

I also watched a heart bypass. That’s the one where they take healthy arteries from the leg and use them to go around—to bypass—diseased passages in the heart. It’s an amazing operation to watch—typically the heart is stopped and the patient’s blood passes through a machine that keeps oxygen flowing to the rest of the body. Lately some surgeons have been doing the surgery with the heart still beating, because it has few complications afterward. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine the level of confidence it must take to control a scalpel next to a heart that is still beating?

What I noticed in that operation—apart from the amazing skills of the doctors and nurses in the room—what I really couldn’t believe, was how small the human heart is. Have you ever thought about that? This organ that controls the blood flow to our bodies, that takes oxygen to every cell we have, that keeps us alive, is about ¾ the size of a clenched fist. A normal heart weighs between 9 and 12 ounces—about 300 grams. But it’ll beat about 3 billion times during our lifetimes—it has been in constant motion since the day we were born—it’s beating right now—and it’ll beat until the day we die.

Our text this morning is also a lot smaller than I thought it was—the main part of it is not quite 5 verses long, but it’s at the heart of our life of faith, no matter how small it is or many times we say it.

"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

"This, then, is how you should pray:

" 'Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.' "

The Lord’s Prayer is a part of the Sermon on the Mount, an extended section of teaching by Jesus where he describes what the Kingdom of God should look like. We spent a lot of time in the Sermon on Mount last year—in every one of those messages we used this definition of the Kingdom of God:

The Kingdom of God is not a realm—a place with boundaries and limits. It’s Christ’s reign, his sovereign rule over his creation and his people—it’s his eternal power over everything, even death.

To fully understand the Lord’s Prayer we have to remind ourselves that Jesus taught it as an expression of faith and practice at the same time—that it takes us wherever we are and teaches us how to live as if we really believed that Jesus Messiah was the Lord of everything.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus has just taught through some of the most radically uncomfortable passages in the New Testament. He tells his followers to turn the other cheek—to give up their right to human justice in order to show their faith in Christ as King. He’s gone an enormous step further in saying that we’re supposed to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. As if that weren’t enough, next Jesus teaches that we’re supposed to give to the poor without expecting any attention or pats on the back for it.

Then he turns to prayer. Jesus makes a distinction between the people who pray for show and those who pray because they believe God is listening. The first group really just wants to be seen praying—they want other people to see them so they stand out on the street corners with one eye closed and the other on the audience, and pretend to talk to God.

For the second group Jesus teaches this essential truth about prayer: It’s about quality, not quantity.

Now we have to let the other sections of Scripture help us to understand this part. I don’t think Jesus is saying that we shouldn’t pray a lot. This quality/quantity thing is about the difference between sincerity and faith on the one hand, and talking to hear ourselves speak—and to have others hear what we pray on the other. In other parts of the Scriptures we’re called to ‘pray without ceasing,’ and I don’t think Jesus is contradicting that at all. He just wants us to pray like we mean it.

Over the next ten weeks we’re going to explore the words of the Lord’s Prayer in depth, and also the role of prayer in each of our lives. We’re going to dive into this prayer to find out what it meant for the earliest believers, and also what it means for us. Here’s the point of the series:

The Lord’s Prayer functions as the heart of our faith in Jesus Christ. It functions in a spiritual way just like the human heart works in our bodies.

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, the parts of our lives that have been used up or depleted in some way can be renewed and restored and sent out again for the work of the Kingdom. The Lord’s Prayer is our declaration of dependence on God—it’s a way of coming before God every day as a reminder that he is at the center—at the core—at the very heart of our lives.

The Lord’s Prayer was the first to be used throughout the church as a liturgical prayer. It’s interesting that the prayer was always in the middle of the service—for a few centuries it was said after the breaking of the bread in Communion, and before the pouring of the wine. We’re going to pay attention to that disruptive quality of the Lord’s Prayer during this series—how it breaks in and reminds us of who we are and whose we are.

Now you’ll notice that the Lord’s Prayer in the Bible is slightly different than the way that we say it—not just the wording—there’s an entire phrase missing at the end. I want to talk about that for just moment as a positive thing—as a sign of the accuracy and trustworthiness of the Bibles we have today.

As scholars have found and translated older manuscripts of the Bible over the past century, they noticed that the last part of the prayer—‘for thine is the Kingdom, and power, and the glory forever’—wasn’t in the oldest texts. It seems to have been added in the 3rd century or so, and it has stayed in the way we say the prayer in church or in private.

That’s a positive thing because it points to how rigorously Bible translators have used the simple rule that what is older is most often more accurate. The Bibles we use today are as accurate as they can possibly be, according to the oldest manuscripts we have available.

But back to the prayer: What is Jesus trying to accomplish here?

The Lord’s Prayer comes to us as a sustaining prayer—like a drink or a meal that keeps us going for another hour or another day. It comes to us like a heart—the center of the bloodstream where everything passes through on its way to replenish the body.

I had a Catholic friend in elementary school, and when I spent the night there one of the things I remember is hearing this strange sound as soon as the lights went out—it sounded like whispering. I was used to sleepovers with cousins and other friends where as soon as the lights went out we started telling jokes and laughing and goofing off. What I remember about staying at Mike’s house was the sound of him praying the rosary as we went to sleep.

I asked him one time what it meant for him to pray those prayers every night, and he shrugged it off. I don’t know what kind of a theological explanation I was looking for, since we were about 10 years old at the time. He said that his priest and his mom told him to do it, and that that was good enough for him. And so he prayed those prayers every night, repeating the words in a whisper as he fell asleep.

Some people don’t like the parts of liturgical worship that rely on repetition, but a lot of Christian traditions work that way. In the English Book of Common Prayer and the Scottish Book of Common Order, the service of Communion is said exactly the same way each time.

When that’s balanced with a more immediate, spontaneous, expression of worship and prayer, the repetition of the liturgy teaches us something important. It reminds us of the unchanging nature of God—how he is the same yesterday, today and forever.

But in the Lord’s Prayer it’s even more than that. Every time we say the prayer it functions as a heartbeat—as one beat in the long journey of discipleship—of growth and trust and struggle and worship. The repetition of the prayer, as strange as this may sound, ends up being different every time we pray it, because we’re different each time we pray it. We would never look back at a single beat of our hearts and say ‘that was it—that was the perfect heartbeat—I don’t need anymore.’ The same thing goes for the Lord’s Prayer. We say it again and again—and its different every time.

What does it mean for us to pray this prayer today? If the Lord’s Prayer functions as the heart of our Christian faith—then it draws us in no matter where we are, and it renews us, and it refocuses us on the life of discipleship. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us of where we’ve been, even as it sends us out to where we’ll go in faith and love and service.

For us, over these next weeks and months together, the Lord’s Prayer is our declaration of dependence on God. There may be a part of that statement that rankles us, isn’t there? For the Americans here our entire national identity is defined by a Declaration of Independence—of being free and self-sustaining. The Lord’s Prayer forces us to re-examine that part of our identity. It’s a reminder of who we are and whose we are—of our need for God not just to sustain us, but also to forgive us, to teach us compassion, and to send us out in service.

Listen to how Eugene Peterson translates this prayer in The Message:

Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right;
Do what’s best—as above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
You’re in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You’re ablaze in beauty!
Yes. Yes. Yes.

As we begin this journey together my hope is that we will pray this old prayer together in new ways, read it with new eyes, and hear it with new ears.

Let’s stand and say it together before our hymn this morning.

(Note: I am happily indebted to Telford Work's book Ain't Too Proud To Beg [Eerdmans, 2007] for help in preparing this message.)

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