Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Our sermon focus over the next several weeks will be this prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, according to Matthew and Luke, words we often refer to as The Lord’s Prayer.
And we take up the Lord’s Prayer in the season of Lent, traditionally a time of reflection and penitence in preparation for Holy Week (when we remember the final days of Jesus life) and Easter (the day of Jesus’ resurrection).
So we’ll be examining the prayer in an un-rushed setting over the next few weeks, allowing us all time to really examine these words that Jesus taught us, and to hear any lessons they may hold for each one of us.
Today our focus is simply that very first line of the prayer: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”
There’s actually a fair bit to unpack here.
Calling God our Father, for instance, reminds us that Jesus invites us to an intimate relationship with God, as close as that of a child with its parent.
Granted, the Father metaphor works best for those who’ve known loving relationships with their own human fathers. We can imagine the tremendous pain it would cause to equate God with an abusive parent, and we can be certain that’s not what Jesus intended here. Any human metaphor for God has its limits – we can never know everything about God, after all, but can only attempt to describe aspects of what God is like - and fortunately there is a wide range of options for metaphorical God language in Scriptures. So those who struggle with the word Father here might perhaps substitute another human image of protection and love: mother, grandpa, shepherd… you get the idea. None of them convey everything about God, of course, but each could help us understand a small piece of what God is like.
At the same time, remembering that God is also in heaven, and saying God’s name is hallowed (holy) picks up the other important half of the equation – the same God that knows and loves each one of us intimately, that can be addressed as a loving parent, is also the Creator of the universe, holy and set apart, all powerful, all knowing, to be greatly respected and revered.
The heavyweight theological terms in question here are immanence and transcendence; immanence being the nearness of God, God with us, Immanuel, and transcendence being the otherness of God, the awesome power and holiness of God. God both reaches out to us, and is unimaginably different from us, above us and beyond us.
It’s all too easy for any one of us to lean more toward one side or the other – some might be so overwhelmed by God’s holiness that it might be hard to think of God as close at hand; others might think of God as a dear friend, someone easy for us to talk to, but forget that this same God is majestic and powerful beyond all imagining.
It’s not for nothing that Jesus puts reminders of both attributes of God front and center in this prayer that models for us how to pray.
After all, if God is my buddy, that’s wonderful, I have a friend who is with me always, who will never leave me or forsake me. But if God is also the Holy Other, maker of heaven and earth, enthroned on high, the one for whom nothing is impossible, then I have an awe-inspiring ally.
Now, have you ever asked yourself what we’re all doing here on Sunday mornings?
It’s lovely to spend time with one another, to feel ourselves part of a loving community like this one. One of our little friends here at church summed up that part of church life perfectly the other week when I overheard her saying to herself during the passing of the peace: “Who else can I hug?” I love that this is part of her church experience.
It’s important too, to be called into service. To find ways to pitch in and lend a hand, both here at church and as we reach out into our community. To serve as Christ’s hands and feet in the world. That, too, is a fantastic reason for being involved with a church, and surely is an important part of our calling as Christians.
But neither community nor service is really the reason we worship.
After all, we could enjoy sharing handshakes and hugs, friendship and community in any number of places. And we know there is no shortage of invitations to service out in the world.
We worship because we are not the center of the universe; God is.
We worship because Our Father in heaven is hallowed and holy, eternal and amazing, infinite in power, infinite in grace.
The song we’ve been singing each week this winter as we bring forward our offering speaks of God being worthy of worship and praise, worthy of honor and glory. It is because God is worthy of all of these things that we sing our songs and bring our gifts.
That’s the real reason we’re all here, to be reminded of the One who created us, the One who called us here, the One who gives us the gift of community and the gift of service. To sing songs and pray prayers that make God our focus, rather than ourselves for a change.
In other words, we don’t come to worship because the choir’s anthems are beautiful and inspiring, though they are.
Or because we want to see our friends, though we do.
Or because in the sermon we will hear something that speaks to us, though I hope it often will.
Because worship isn’t really about us. It’s about the object of our worship, which is God.
An article I read recently made this claim: “I deeply believe that when we say, “The future of the Church is service,” we are allowing our culture, once again, to get the best of us. We so desperately want to be popular that we are sacrificing our distinctiveness as church. So we create worship where our prayers are innocuous, so as not to scare … people away. Or we devise a little prayer before or after a meal and pretend it is worship….You know: let’s be spiritual and a little — but only a little — religious… [But] Worship… is the unique, distinct, set-apart thing the Church does and is called to do. We don’t do it for ourselves, but for God.”
The author continues: “When people sometimes tell me they don’t get anything from worship, I am happy to answer, “That’s [ok]! Because its not about you.” Our culture needs a place — we need a place in our lives — to tell us that not everything is always about us, about our personal happiness, our convenience, our frantic timetables, or shrinking commitments. Some things are bigger than us.” (“Christianity Cannot Survive the Decline in Worship” by Kazimierz Bem)
And incidentally, thank God for that, right? Remembering it’s not all about us teaches us humility, yes, but it can also give us hope.
I mean, Thank God it’s not up to me to run the universe! Thank God the hands that hold this world are far bigger than mine.
Anne Lamott says all prayer can essentially be paraphrased in three simple words: Help. Thanks. Wow.
To acknowledge God’s holiness, to say hallowed be your name, is a form of Wow.
At its heart it’s simple adoration; it’s praise.
I find that even the use of the pronoun “our” in the Lord’s Prayer (Our Father, not my Father) invites me to remember that it’s not all about me. We are people of faith together, at worship together, invited together into something bigger than ourselves. People all over the world are praying to “Our Father,” so clearly that little word “our” is a weighty word as well.
But before we conclude this morning, I do also want to give you a bit of time to reflect on your own, on this opening line of the Lord’s Prayer.
You will see a few questions on p. 10 of your bulletin. And we’ll take maybe 3-5 minutes to sit quietly and consider them. Feel free to write, or draw, if that helps you think. Feel free to find an object here in the sanctuary to focus on, if that helps you concentrate, or simply to close your eyes and consider again just these opening words: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”
I’ll conclude our time of reflection in a few minutes and then move us into our next hymn.
Bulletin questions: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…”
Complete the following thoughts:
If God is Our Father, I am ….
If God is Hallowed / Holy, I am …
Lent is traditionally understood to be a season of repentance, acknowledging our sins and asking God’s forgiveness. To repent literally means to turn. Where do you hear in the opening line of the Lord’s Prayer an invitation to turn?
Lent also points us forward to Easter, and with it, God’s promise of new life. Where might God be offering you a life-giving word in these words?
Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon remind us: The Lord’s Prayer is something we say together “over and over again, week after week.” While it may be something we do out of habit, “habits are important, particularly in a faith that is so against our natural inclinations, a faith that is so at odds with many of the deeply ingrained and widely held assumptions of this culture… Prayer is bending our lives toward God.” (Lord Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer and Christian Life)
May we continue to hear in the words of this important prayer an invitation to “bend our lives toward God.” Amen.