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United Church of Christ

533 Route 28, Harwich Port, MA 02646 | Phone: 508-432-1668

How to Pray

"How to Pray"
Rev. Peggy O'Connor
Pilgrim Congregational Church, UCC
March 9, 2014
Luke 11:1-4


In the passage we just heard, a disciple ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. Didn't they know how to pray? Probably they didn't. Jews went to the Temple to give offerings to God once a year, not for regular prayer services. Prayers were the purview of the priests. So, when the disciples saw Jesus praying and recognized it was a source of strength for him, they wanted to learn how to do what he was doing.

What Jesus taught them were the words that we know as the Lord's Prayer, which is arguably the most famous and well known prayer in the world. Every Christian service contains this prayer. It is one of the first prayers we teach our children. But the appeal and knowledge of this prayer goes beyond Christians.

At President Obama's inauguration pastor Rick Warren ended his benediction with an invitation to join him in saying the Lord's Prayer. I remember cringing at this and worrying that Americans of other faiths would be offended. The next day the Jewish bookkeeper at my church asked if I had watched the inauguration. She went on to say that she had stood to say the Lord's Prayer and had found it to be profoundly moving. For her it was a moment of unity as a nation and she wanted to be a part of it.

We get the same sense of unity when we recite the Lord's Prayer here in church. It feels good to say it together. The prayer envelope us as we say it together. The familiar words roll off our tongue and we are comforted. But, do we know what we are actually saying in this prayer? Do we pay attention to what we are saying? I worry that we don't. So this week, we begin our Lenten Series that explores the Lord's Prayer. We start with: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

"Our Father", the opening words of the Lord's Prayer tell us who God is. God the creator is our parent, who knows us intimately. This news is good but not exactly what Jesus said to his disciples. The word we have translated as Father does not do justice to what Jesus revealed to the 12 about God. He used the word Abba; more accurately rendered as Papa or even Daddy.

What a difference there is between Father and Papa. Father is formal, no doubt chosen to depict the greatness and the power of God. Papa on the other hand evokes feelings of trust, intimacy and love. Daddy and Papa are names used by little children. This is someone into whose lap you can crawl. This is the God that Jesus taught the twelve to pray to that day.

Using Abba, Jesus invites us into an intimate relationship with God that goes beyond anything we could ever imagine. This is a god you can go to with any problem or need. Praying to God in this way builds a relationship that is deep, trusting loving, and close. This is the first thing that the Lord's Prayer teaches us but it is not the first word.

Father is preceded by the word "Our". This little word holds a lot of meaning. It tells us that we are all related, not just to God, but to one another. In this single word, we learn that we are all siblings...brothers and sisters. Put together, these first two words of the Lord's Prayer tell us that this is not a prayer or a relationship for a chosen few. We are all in this together. We are related. We are family.

This is what I believe the bookkeeper at my church was tapping into when she said the Lord's Prayer at the end of President Obama's inauguration. She enjoyed the sense of unity...of oneness...of family. What a powerful notion. It offers belonging and it calls for a commitment to one another from each of us.

Before I move on I need to say something about God's gender. Over the centuries the God of Abraham has been presented as male so consistently that many Christians, Jews, and Muslims have come to believe that God is actually a man. I don't know about you but I remember coloring pictures of God in Sunday school...He was an old man sitting on a throne on a cloud up in heaven. Yet the Bible is clear that God is no one thing. It uses every imaginable word and image to describe God: Eagle, wind, rain, Wisdom, a hen, Mother, Father and more. By using so many different words for God the bible tries hard to avoid one image of God but we have undone this by call God Father and him for the past several centuries. We have ignored the Biblical advise to have multiple images of God.

That said, if a male image of God works for you, that is fine. But if it is not helpful then try other images. The goal is to find the one that fosters your relationship and allows you to find your way into God's lap.

Lastly, we come to the phrase "Hallowed be thy name". These words tell us that God's name is holy. In Biblical times it was a capital crime to use God's name in a blasphemous way. When the Israelites were in the wilderness a man cursed God and the people stoned him to death on the spot. Jesus was crucified, in part, because he said he was the son of God, which was blasphemy. And in the first century, Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was killed because a crowd believed he had taken God's name in vain. The holiness of God's name is not to be taken lightly.

Today, such prohibitions have lost their power for many Christians. However, Muslims still demand that God's name is sacred. In 2005 a Danish paper published cartoons featuring caricatures of the prophet Mohammed. Meant as social commentary they sparked violent protests from Muslims. For Christians the protests were baffling. It was just a cartoon after all.

One reason Christians had such are hard time understanding the outrage is that we tend to forget our own faith's prohibition against images of God and using God's name in vain. The 10 Commandments are clear on both counts. #2 prohibits making or possessing of an image of God. #3 says never take God's name in vain. We forget that the image and name of God are so holy that we are to use them with great care...if at all.

Today's world of email, blogs, websites, facebook, and tweets...all of which encourage the sharing of opinions and views plus an informality of language...send a message that it is ok to say anything. As kids we said, "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." It was meant to take the sting out of hurtful words but I think it taught something else as well. It told us that words are harmless. They are not. Anyone who has experienced abusive language knows the power of words. Children, who hear that they are stupid, fat, or clumsy, bear the scars of those words in their psyches. Words used in anger or in outrage are powerful and can wound deeply. Said often enough, we believe them even though they are not true.

In fact, words are more destructive than sticks and stones. How we use them is important. Yet today, our culture is reckless in the way language is used. Movies and music are full demeaning words about women, homo-sexuals, immigrants, and others and contain abundant examples of using God's name in vain. People who swear a lot will tell you that the words are meaningless. They are just expressions. And while no one runs the risk of the deacons coming out to stone them for using God's name in vain, I believe that these kinds of words and expressions do hurt us.

We like saying the Lord's Prayer because it reminds us of our relationship with and to God. It also reminds us of our relationships with one another as the family of God. It is why this prayer has remained so pivotal to our faith for two thousand years now. And it is why it is known and accepted as an important pray by people across the religious spectrum.

The Lord's Prayer also tells us that how we use language is important. God's name is Hallowed...more important and more sacred than any other word or name. This sets the tone of the prayer and sets the rest of the prayer up. It is the basis and rationale for the rest of the prayer.

This prayer holds a life time of lessons. If you listen to the words and pay attention to their meaning then every time you bow your head in prayer you will remember your sacred and special relationship with God. Every time you are scared, lonely, or uncertain what to do all you have to do is call out to Abba, for every time you do you will know you are never alone. Every time you pray, saying Our Father, you acknowledge you share this relationship with every other creature on earth.

Four nights ago, almost 40 people gathered in our chapel to mark the start of Lent. The Chapel and church were lit by over 100 candles. In that flickering light we prayed for forgiveness from our failings and mistakes. Then in silence we each considered what we wanted to change about our lives and our practices over the next forty days so that we might feel closer to God and more aligned with God's will for us as individuals and as a church. This morning I hope that each of you will spend a moment or two considering how you will Hallow God's name every day during Lent. After a minute or two of silence, let's say the Lords' Prayer once again...this time paying attention to the words.

Posted: Sunday March 9, 2014