A sermon[1] preached at Niles Discovery Church
a new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 9, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 6:5-15 and Luke 11:1-13
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“Lord, teach us to pray.”  That’s what the disciple asked Jesus.  They had seen Jesus go off to pray and when he returned, a disciple said, “John taught his disciples to pray.  Teach us to pray.”

For most of the past 30 years, I have desired to be a better pray-er.  I have felt a little inadequate when it came to the practice of prayer.  I felt like my technique was off, that if I only knew a better way to pray I would be more holy or grounded or something.  I felt like I just wasn’t doing it right.  I totally get why the disciples would ask Jesus to teach them to pray.

Today, I still feel like my technique is still lacking something, but I’ve learned that the best way to pray is to … pray.  Just do it, Jeff.  Talk to God.  Listen.  Practice the awareness of the presence of God.

And so I pray.

This sermon series that we start today was born about of the Adult Sunday School class.  At some point in the recent past, they came across and talked about the version of the Lord’s Prayer[2] we used today and will use for the next three Sundays.  It’s from A New Zealand Prayer Book, the book of common prayer used in the Anglican Church in New Zealand.  Members of the class asked if we could use it in worship and, along with some ideas that came from the Ministry of Spiritual Life Team, Pastor Brenda and I decided to offer a short series on the Lord’s Prayer.  My hope is that, by the multiple ways we will explore this prayer that all of Christianity prays, you will find new, meaningful ways to pray it.

“Lord, teach us to pray,” the disciple asked.  So Jesus taught them a prayer.  Here, when you pray say, …  And if you were listening closely, you noticed that the prayer Luke tell us Jesus taught is different from what Matthew tells us Jesus taught.  In fact, the whole context for teaching the prayer is different.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is about a third of the way through the Sermon on the Mount.  The subject turns to prayer and Jesus tells a bunch of dos and don’ts:  Don’t make a show of your prayer.  Do go off to a quiet place to pray.  Don’t worry about flowery language.  Do trust God to know your meaning.  And then Jesus says, “Pray this way.”

The prayer Jesus teaches in Matthew’s gospel is very similar to the one Jesus teaches in Luke’s gospel.  They both have the same five points or lines (at least the way I look at the prayer).  Matthew’s Jesus uses slightly more flowery language than Luke’s – which I think is funny, since Matthew’s Jesus just finished saying not to worry about flower language.  So, let’s walk through those five lines and think about what it means to pray this prayer and how it invites us into a deeper life of prayer.

Calling God, “Father,” is not a uniquely Jesus thing.  And “Abba” is an intimate word, closer to “Daddy” than “Father” in contemporary American English, but I don’t think Jesus offered anything new in that regard.  Jewish mystics and rabbis taught the value of intimacy with God.  In fact, “Father” may have the opposite impact for some people.  People whose earthly fathers were abusive or absent may find calling God “Father” to be a stumbling block to intimacy.

That doesn’t mean we should do away with this image for God.  Consider how, in Jesus time, fathers taught their sons a trade.  Perhaps, if the image doesn’t distance you from God, you can sometimes call God “Father” as a reminder that God calls us to God’s work in the world as our own.

But because “Father” is a problem for some people and is a limited image for God (God is so much more than only a father), I appreciate how in the New Zealand prayer, they don’t choose just one name or image.  “Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver, Source of all that is and that shall be, Father and Mother of us all, Loving God.”

Besides, the name we call God isn’t the part of this line that most calls me into prayer.  “Hallowed be thy name” or “… your name.”  “The hallowing of your name echo through the universe.”  This is the phrase that calls me into awe.

May I join all creation’s song of praise.  May injustice, disfigurement, sin, and death be transformed into the honoring, the hallowing of You.  As we stand in the presence of the Living God, aware of all the hardship and hurt, all the injustice and brokenness, to pray that the whole cosmos glorify God’s name is to pray for the transformation of the world.  And that very likely includes the transformation of each one of us.

The second line is “Your kingdom come.  Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Luke stops with the first sentence.  All Jesus teaches in Luke’s gospel is, “Your kingdom come.”

This is a radical line, and we’ll get into the radicalness of it in the weeks ahead.  For today’s sermon, think about this.

We, each one of us, are dust and ashes – stardust and star ash at the atomic level, dust and dirt at the circle-of-life level.  Consider what it means to ask God’s will to be done on this little bit of earth, on this lump of clay.  If we really want God’s kin-dom to come, it needs to come in my body and in your body.  And not just in our individual bodies, but in our collective body – this congregation – too.

Whenever we pray, we come aware of urgent needs, or at least wants.  When we come to pray the Lord’s Prayer, it might be tempting to get to those needs and wants, to get to our agenda.  So we might rush through these first two lines.  Then it’s time to take a deep breath and say, “Now look here, God, when it comes to daily bread, there are simply some things I must have.”  And then off we go with our agenda.

To do this, of course, is to let greed get in the way of grace.  So it might be good, when we get to the third line, the middle line, perhaps the climax of the prayer, to take a deep breath not to get to our agenda, but to clear our minds.  What do we find when we do that?  A buzz of fears and hopes and wants and puzzles, perhaps.  And behind that?  Perhaps some deep sadnesses, some real anger, and (I hope) some real joy, some true delight.

For those of us who have no worries about the bread we need for today or tomorrow, this line invites us to think about what we really do need – and to distinguish those needs from our wants.  To pray that God provide our daily bread can be a request to have our deepest needs met.  Or it can be a prayer to deepen our trust in God’s abundance to provide the healing and vision and answers and joy and strength we need.

For those of us who have no worries about the bread we need for today or tomorrow, this line invites us to think about people for whom this daily need is a reality.  Can we pray this line, “Give us today the bread we need for tomorrow,” not just for those who don’t know if there will be food tomorrow, but with them?  This line invites us, at least in our prayers, to move into a deeper solidarity with people across socio-economic and cultural strata.

Finally (on this line), consider what it means to pray this prayer minutes before we celebrate communion.  Give us today the bread we need.

Forgiveness, the subject of the next line, is not easy.  When we are hurt deeply, the sting is there.  Trust betrayed is not easily forgiven.  It is natural to remain defensive, cautious.  And it’s normal to be resentful.  This is true even when the person who hurt us is us.  For me, at least, I hurt myself most by hurting others.  I do something that violates trust or is disrespectful for is just plain old mean.  And then I beat myself up for this, rather than forgive myself.  So when I pray for God to forgive my sins, my debts, my trespasses, one of the things that I’m praying for is the experience of forgiveness to help me to forgive myself.

Both Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the Lord’s Prayer include the phrase “as we forgive.”  There is some wisdom here.  There is a recognition that as we forgive others, we open ourselves to the experience of forgiveness.  There is something about the act of offering forgiveness that creates a space for grace within ourselves.

The fifth line is the most challenging for me:  “Do not bring us to the time of trial,” is the translation of Luke’s version.  “But rescue us from the evil one,” Matthew’s version adds.  “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” we traditionally recite, coming from older English translations.  What’s this all about?

Well, one thing might be a recognition that we’re part of a raggedy band, a group that doesn’t always do what we ought, a group that fails to fully comprehend what’s going on as we march along with Jesus.

Remember the scene at Gethsemane?  Jesus goes with a few of his disciples to pray, just hours before he’s arrested.  Jesus prays that he not have to face the trials that lay ahead, but that instead he could be delivered from the evil he would face.  The disciples can’t even keep their eyes open.

Perhaps when we pray this line, we’re asking God to keep the living out of this discipleship commitment as easy as possible.  Don’t bring us to a time of trial like Jesus had to face.  Deliver us from the evil of being killed for our faithfulness.  Perhaps.

Praying this line is certainly a recognition of the reality of evil.  This line helps keep us from wading into denial as if evil doesn’t exist.  Likewise, it helps keep us from wallowing in despair at the immensity of evil in the world.  Instead, it acknowledges the reality of evil and asks that we not get caught up in it so instead we can be part of God’s antidote to it.  It is our responsibility, as we pray this prayer, to hold God’s precious and precarious world before our gaze.

Perhaps this exposition will help you pray the Lord’s Prayer.  Certainly one way to pray it is to hold each line and consider it’s meaning for you in that moment before moving on to the next.  Praying it slowly like that works much better as an individual spiritual practice than it does in community.  So it is one way to pray the Lord’s prayer.

Another way is to use it as a sample outline.  Start by honoring God.  Then pray for God justice.  Move to your real needs and the needs of others.  Then pray for forgiveness and offer forgiveness in prayer.  Finally, pray for strength for the journey.

Another way is to take one line or even one phrase of a line and let it be your prayer for the day.  “Our Father” could be your prayer for the day.  Hold that and be aware of all the ways you encounter God and imagine God as you go through the day.  “Thy kingdom come.”  Hold that and be aware of how you see the in-breaking of God’s love and justice as you go through the day.  You get the idea.

And then there’s the mantra approach.  There is a prayer tradition, perhaps stronger in the Eastern Orthodox stream of Christianity than in others, of breath prayer.  In breath prayer, two phrases or sentences are repeated over and over, one on the inhalation and one of the exhalation.  Through the repetition, this becomes a sort of mantra as each breath becomes the prayer.  It can become an unconscious prayer, a prayer that is being offered from the depths of your brain and the simple act of breathing.  The Lord’s Prayer can be prayed in the same way, over and over until it becomes as much a part of who you are as your next breath.

By giving us this prayer, Jesus invites us to walk with God in every aspect of our lives.  We are invited to pray as we sit in the awesomeness and intimacy of God.  We are invited to pray in the struggle for justice and peace.  We are invited to pray about the needs we have and the needs others have.  We are invited to pray for forgiveness even as we offer forgiveness – and to let the work of reconciliation be a pray itself.  We are invited to pray as we walk ahead into the shadows and discover that God is there, too.

May our lives be infused with this prayer.


[1] Primary source for this sermon:  Wright, N. T., The Lord and His Prayer (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1996).

[2] This prayer has been transcribed and posted on the web in several places, including http://monasteryroad.blogspot.com/2008/07/lords-prayer-from-new-zealand-prayer.html.