The Lord’s Prayer: Facing evil, making choices

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — We have come to the final request of the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” As Protestant Christians, we are used to the prayer continuing with closing words of praise, “for thine is the Kingdom and the glory, forever.” This ending was probably added by Matthew’s early church in the late part of the first century, and used in their worship time together. Notice on front of the worship bulletin that they are only found in Matthew.

Jesus ended his prayer he taught his followers by focusing on some of the more troubling aspects of our human condition:  temptation, trial, evil. For me, this part of Jesus’ prayer raises difficult questions about why and how we mess up, hurt ourselves, others and the planet; why we sin. Whose responsibility is it to corral and subdue evil in the world? Is it God’s job to get rid of evil? If we are God’s partners in healing God’s worldwide Household, what of this is our job? How does God “keep us from evil; keep our going out and our coming in,” as the Psalmist of our Hebrew scriptures claimed? And what do we mean by evil? A personified devil figure who runs around making trouble? Individual breaches of morality, and defined by who? Or are we talking about bigger systemic evils, like genocide of Native American peoples or the rise of Hitler’s Germany? Slavery of Africans, the Christian crusades of medieval times, the spread of ISIS?   Whew…shall we stop right now and go to brunch? This final part of the Lord’s Prayer is complicated…and hugely important to understanding what Jesus was doing.

“Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.” When I was a child, I had a small picture book about the Lord’s Prayer. It was filled with lovely water-color paintings meant to catch a child’s attention; the illustration I remember most clearly went with this passage we are considering today. A late summer scene with trees and lush green grass, and a small group of children starting to climb over a split-rail fence. On the other side of the fence is an apple tree, its leafy branches heavy with ripe red fruit. Ah…forbidden fruit! An angel-type figure is standing next to the children with its arms raised. I could never quite figure this one out. Was the angel trying to stop the kids from the illegal deed of apple stealing? Was the angel enticing them to pick the apples and God was then supposed to stop them? All I remember is some vague notion about God wanting me not to be naughty.

We often assume temptation or trial is just about individual morality. So we pray, “God, help me not eat that extra piece of pie; God, help me stay off those websites that are full of all kinds of virtual temptation.” Sometimes the purpose of Christianity gets reduced to “Preventing Individual Naughtiness.” God becomes “The Great Dispenser of Discipline.” We start to assume we get punished if we are naughty and rewarded if we are nice.

Unfortunately, some people stay stuck reacting to this reward/punishment view through much of their lives, and it ticks them off: “I don’t need anyone to tell me what to do! I’m in control of my own life! I can take care of myself; I’m not dependent on anyone!” And if we do hold onto this view of God as the Great Enforcer of Proper Behavior into adulthood, we end up resenting it at some level.  If our good behavior isn’t rewarded, we may feel unjustly treated in some way.  “Hey, I behaved myself and didn’t get my reward of good health and prosperity!”

We vacillate between wanting to “go it on our own,” and then wondering why God doesn’t intervene and squash all evil. And we end up missing the point of Jesus’ message. We are created to be coworkers, partners, with God in healing the broken world Household of God. To take responsibility for our own behavior and not expect rewards and punishments.

What might have been Jesus’ original meaning here in this part of the prayer? The Greek word in the Lord’s Prayer that is translated as temptation can also mean trial or test. And there is probably no better place to understand what Jesus was talking about here, than to look at the time when Jesus himself was sorely tempted, put to the test: What we call the “temptations in the wilderness,” when Jesus retreated for a time of prayer and fasting right after his baptism in the Jordan River by John at the beginning of his public ministry.

During our Bible study on this passage last Tuesday, one of you noted how “hallucinatory” this story sounded. Dusty, dry isolated terrain; consciousness possibly altered by days of fasting, silence and aloneness. Is this inner dialogue or confrontation with an external evil entity? We are not sure. Jewish mythology had no strong personification of evil, like the devil figure that is vividly depicted in medieval art and literature of the later Christian era. Matthew describes that the tempter puts it to Jesus: “Hey, you must be hungry: doesn’t God provide manna for all? Satisfy your own hunger: Turn these stones into bread.” Jesus and the tempter end up in a war of words, slinging Hebrew Bible passages back and forth. “No?” sneers the tempter. “Well, how about something a little more public; come up to the top of the top pinnacle tower of the Jerusalem Temple and jump and let’s give the folks a display of miraculous power! Hmmm? Okay (continues the tempter) How about dominion over all the world powers? You keep saying the Kingdom of God is at hand! Let’s bring it on, Jesus! Let’s smash these evil human powers and bring God’s righteous reign in by force! Be that warrior leader everyone wants!” Jesus refuses; the tempter departs.
Tempter, devil, evil one – all different translations of a Greek verbal noun comprised of “dia” and “ballo” – meaning “to throw over or across” – or one who attacks, misleads, discredits. And who/whatever this entity is, it has a one-track mind – it’s all about power – “Take it Jesus, it’s yours by right, since you are the Son of God. This is a royal title attributed to the ancient Jewish Davidic line: Be that warrior prince, that Messiah, Jesus! Be who you are!”

Jesus had grown up in Nazareth after a huge military incursion of Roman legions in 4 BC, which brutally squashed violent rebellions among the Jewish people. Roman power continues at this time to oppress the people, demanding excessive taxes, military service, and most repugnant, worshipping Caesar as God. How very tempting to think that more violence might be the answer. Perhaps this is the toughest challenge in this prayer and in Jesus’ teachings: Again and again Jesus will refuse violence as the way to bring in the Kingdom, the Reign, of God.

An aside on sin: There are growing number of Bible scholars who say that humans’ original sin was not the disobedience of eating fruit from a tree in the Garden of Eden. They point to the first time the word “sin” is used in Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament: the Cain and Abel story. These two sons of the mythical Adam and Eve story were strong rivals. Cain ended up killing his brother. In response, God warns, for the first time, of “sin lurking at their door.”  What was the sin? Escalating violence that seeks not just to defend but to retaliate. And escalatory violence was starting to look pretty tempting to many of those under Roman imperial oppression in the first century during Jesus’ time and Jesus knew it was a dead end.

I think of difficult times I have been through in my life, times when I had the choice between depending upon my own limited understanding and human strength, flailing around…or working with God to figure out what God was calling me to next in the middle of the mess. Think of one of your own times of trial and testing in your family or this church’s history. Have we been reactive and destructive as we struggled to cope? There are forms of escalating violence that are damaging even without physical blows. It may be that Jesus turned from following John the Baptist simply because John was preaching a coming of the Kingdom through violence against Rome. This God who arrives imminently will be an avenging presence!

But not so for Jesus. He will command his followers to put away their swords when he is confronted and arrested by Roman soldiers in the Garden of Gethsemane. The church in each generation has got to grapple with the implications of Jesus’ call to non-violence. A difficult challenge in a world where evil persists and there are never easy answers or simple solutions.

The curious thing about times of crisis, trial and testing is that while they can break us, they have the curious potential to change us and redefine us. Do I see myself as a passive recipient of God’s rewards and punishments? Do I rely on my own insight and strength? Or do I reach out to God and to others in these challenging times, acknowledging my full membership in God’s family? Do I see my part in the mess; recognize and confess my sins, repent and change my ways? Individual and group character can be tempered and shaped in such times.

For some reason, God has placed us in a world that is both beautiful and dangerous, good and evil, and filled with wonder and resources and unpredictability. This is our life. Where will we each face temptation this week?  Be on the alert. Know that we are free to work with God, to resist evil, to help heal the world and delight in it together. And so we are urged to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer: The challenge of forgiveness

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — In Jesus’ time, it was nothing new to say that God forgives. Within the Jewish tradition and Hebrew scriptures, God was constantly rebuilding bridges between Godself and careless, rebellious, sinful humans. When it came to broken relationships between humans, much was also written in Jewish law about forgiveness between people: The injured person had an ethical responsibility to forgive the one who committed the offense. The injured party was even to pray to God that God would forgive the offender, even before the offender acknowledged the offending behavior and repented. These were high standards indeed. Jesus intuited that forgiveness is connected with our emotional and spiritual health. He would needle and provoke people into wrestling with the full implications of their own tradition around forgiveness. One day, he is approached by one of his closest disciples, Peter. “Uh, Jesus? Our religious teachers say we should forgive people seven times….that sure is a lot! What about that?” Replies Jesus, “You are to forgive 70 times seven times!” I’m sure Peter was sorry he asked. On another day, Jesus, said, Pray like this: “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” But forgiveness is hard, Jesus! Yes, he would probably reply. I think this part of the prayer is a time bomb.

Forgiveness has to do with how we coexist with the past where mistakes and injury have been made. I would say that forgiveness is not the immediate concern when a transgression is still happening: the battered wife should not be forgiving the husband who keeps beating her; she needs to find a safe way for her and her children to exit the immediate danger. Stopping the offense is always the first thing that needs to happen. I think that this part of the Lord’s Prayer deals with the messiness of life when an offense has stopped, because someone died or someone left or others have stepped in to call a halt. This part of the Lord’s Prayer deals with human fallibility, people’s tendency to miss the mark in ethical behavior, intentionally or unintentionally. Human sinfulness. If we chose not to resort to retaliation or retribution, how do we move on? What do we do with the memories of what has happened, especially since it is impossible to forget?

The Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke each recorded this part of the Lord’s Prayer a bit differently, as you can see from the Biblical quotes on the front of your bulletin. In this congregation, we usually pray Matthew’s version: And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. Jesus taught that our sinfulness against God, our resistance to God leading us, puts us in debt to God, in a very real sense. It is a debt that we just can’t pay back. We all have to fall on God’s merciful forgiveness. Some Biblical scholars maintain that “debts” may come closest to Jesus’ original words in the prayer.

Jesus’ original audience would hear “debt” and remember the stories of their ancestors’ release from debt-slavery in Egypt. They would remember the teachings from Deuteronomy we just heard: Within their communities and covenant with God, there was to be a rhythm of every seven years of release from debt, a Sabbath or Sabbatical year. Just like the rhythm of releasing your land from plantings by letting them lie fallow, debts should be forgiven and slaves were to be released. The reminder was always this: Pharaoh’s Egypt was not just. The Israelites, the people of God, are not to become another Egypt. Could “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” also have to do with our part in the justice is enough for everyone in God’s House and not too much debt weighing people down? Was Jesus implying a double meaning here? Was he just as concerned about economic inequity as he was about the buildup of unforgiven resentments? Such a short phrase, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” A simple petition now gets more complicated!

“Not seven times, but, I tell you, 77 times,” replies Jesus. And after giving this absurdly high number, Jesus proceeds to tell a story about literal financial debt. And it is a dire story of a harsh king who wants to settle accounts with his slaves. After much pleading, a once heavily in debt slave is finally forgiven his debt (the equivalent of about $25 million – listeners, take note of the extreme exaggeration – watch Jesus wink at us) by the relenting king. But then this slave has the audacity to turn around and imprison a fellow slave who owes him a small amount of money (the equivalent of about $50 — notice the contrast?). His fellow slaves are understandably distressed by this double standard and inform the king. Infuriated, the king orders the slave tortured until he presents the money he is concealing and repays his entire debt. The story ends rather ominously with Jesus suggesting that God will do this to us if we do not forgive our brothers and sisters from our hearts. Yikes. This is Jesus at his storytelling best – full of hyperbole and exaggeration to make a point.

Some of you might remember a novel from a few years ago called “The Shack,” by William P. Young. It is an unsettling story of a man who, I’m not sure how else to describe this, “meets God.” His life is miserable, as he is trying to cope with the kidnapping and apparent murder of his young daughter. Several years after the girl’s disappearance, the distraught and grieving father receives an anonymous summons to travel to an abandoned wilderness cabin related to his daughter’s abduction. Cautious and curious, there he has an astounding encounter with…well, as odd as this may sound…the three persons of the Holy Trinity. Whether this is in a dream or in an altered state or happens in real time, the reader doesn’t quite know. But God in three persons shows up as an older woman called Papa, a youngish male carpenter called Jesus and a strangely vibrant, multi-colored and somewhat transparent mostly gender-neutral apparition who is the Spirit. These three beings each talk with the bereaved father, they eat meals together, they sing, they walk around, they talk and eat some more. Much of their discussion is about forgiveness, which, as you may well imagine, does not sit well with this grieving parent who would happily kill the man who murdered his daughter.

At one point the Jesus figure says to the angry father: “Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is about letting go of another person’s throat.” I was struck by this image. There have certainly been times when I have had both of my hands around someone’s throat, even if it is only in my imagination. When this happens to us, both hands are busy with hanging on, and not available for much else. And when we keep verbalizing these unforgiving feelings, telling our grievance story again and again, others experience a sort of second-hand violence. Still finding yourself complaining about a previous pastor, a certain group in the church or a specific lay leader? I would say this kind of talk is damaging; it fouls the air around us as a church. How willing are we to let go, and in the releasing, open up some clear airspace within us and between us? And here’s the clincher, according to Jesus: The space and energy taken up by our unforgiveness inhibits our ability to engage in God’s forgiveness of us.

Here is the challenge of Jesus’ vision: If I have a falling out with my fellow human, can I come to see that person as worth-ful, in spite of the wrongdoing? If not, I have not cleaned up my part of it. It’s all about connection within a wider threat of creation. And I am going to have trouble connecting with God. Not because God rejects me; I’m just not in much of a receiving mode. My own unforgiving attitude blocks the channel of forgiveness. My hands are still around that person’s throat. My hands (and heart) are not open and available to join with God’s, nor are they really available to help anyone else. Perhaps we have difficulty forgiving ourselves for something we did, or didn’t do. Strange to think of our hands around our own throats, isn’t it? Perhaps we think this gives us some sense of control of the past situation, if we keep punishing ourselves…but, wow, it sure consumes a lot of energy. And again, my hands and heart are not free.

Forgiveness not only frees our hands up, it helps us recover our energies and our personal power, our integrity. “Pray like this,” said Jesus: “Forgive us our debts, our trespasses, our sins, as we forgive our debtors, those who trespass, sin against us.” Amen.

Offering for Heifer International

From March 6 through May 15, we will be taking a children’s offering in our First Hour classes. The offering will be given to Heifer International, an organization that works with communities to end world hunger and poverty and to care for the earth. Heifer uses donations to provide animals to individuals within a community.

The animals provide both food and reliable income, as agricultural products such as milk, eggs and honey can be traded or sold at market. When many families gain this new sustainable income, it allows children in the family to attend school, and it brings new opportunities for building schools, creating agricultural cooperatives, forming community savings and funding small businesses. Heifer’s model is “passing on the gift,” which means families share the training they receive, and they pass on the first female offspring of their livestock to another family. This extends the impact of the original gift, allowing a once-impoverished family to become donors and full participants in improving their communities.

Children at Falcon Heights Church will choose whether to purchase chicks, bees, a pig, a goat, or even a share of a heifer.

Confirmation class begins

A group of five young people in grades 6-8 has begun to meet with Pastor Anne each Wednesday evening. They are exploring their ideas about God, Jesus, the Bible, the Church and how they hope to live their lives. They are learning to listen to God in prayer, reading the Bible and paying attention to the daily news around them.

Confirmation is less about learning Bible facts and creeds, and more about learning how to live as a disciple of Jesus. In November, each of the young people will make the decision as to whether or not they chose to be confirmed and formally join this congregation.

This is a time of exploration for each of them. We will share more about their journey together, the books they are reading, the service projects they will do, the other religious traditions they will encounter, as we move through this year.  Please keep them, and their pastor, in your prayers!

Wednesday night suppers resume

Join the cast of our spring musical, along with other hungry folks, for supper and conversation on Wednesday evenings beginning March 30. Food is served from 6 to 6:30 p.m., with the play rehearsal beginning at 6:20 p.m. No charge, no dinner prep, although contributions of funds and/or salads or desserts are always welcomed. Contact Sue Gramith (suegramith@hotmail.com) or Rachelle Roeckeman (rachelle@roeckeman.com) to help.

Open and Affirming celebration April 9

The Open and Affirming Ministry Team of the Minnesota Conference UCC presents the annual Open and Affirming celebration Saturday, April 9, at Linden Hills Congregational United Church of Christ. Workshops begin at 1 p.m. A 2:30 p.m. worship service features preaching by the Rev. Lawrence Richardson, minister for digital evangelism for the United Church of Christ, and choral music by Mizpah United Church of Christ of Hopkins.

The Lord’s Prayer: bread and fish for all

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — We don’t know the actual context in which Jesus taught his followers the Lord’s Prayer. They may well have been in the middle of eating together. Perhaps a relaxed evening meal or a hastily consumed mid-day snack as they walked from one town to the next. “Give us this day our daily bread.” What kind of “bread” do you picture in your mind’s eye as you hear this petition? When I pray this part of the Lord’s Prayer, I remember the squishy white sliced marvel of my childhood: Wonder Bread! My sister and I loved to tear off the crust and mush it into a ball, which we would slowly nibble as we wandered the neighborhood. A far cry from the flat pita-like bread that Jesus ate in his day. “Give us this day our daily bread”: it seems so obvious, but what are we doing when we pray this part of the prayer?

The whole issue of daily sustenance, and our relationship with food, has become increasingly complicated. Food is so over-consumed in our part of the world that we live in culture of fad diets, rising obesity, various eating disorders and diet-related diabetes. And some popular diets suggest that bread is fattening and bad for us. Perhaps we should pray, “Keep us away from our daily bread!”  But we know all too well that as many of us walk miles to burn off calories from bread, others around the world walk miles to just find bread and food calories for their families.

We pore through glossy food magazines, watch hours of TV celebrity chef shows of other people cooking. We obsess about nutritional value and the sourcing of our food, but as a nation it is now a well-documented fact that we are spending less and less time cooking. Food policy researchers have noted that while the price of an increasing abundance of processed food has plummeted since World War II, the price of fresh fruits and vegetables has skyrocketed. Is it any wonder that those with limited food budgets eat too much processed food, fast food, junk food? The powers and reach of agribusiness, industrialized feedlots, and GMOs continue to grow and overwhelm our supermarket aisles, and their products are being increasingly marketed to underdeveloped countries. All while we are painfully, if we can stand to pay attention, painfully aware of the exploding number of people in the world who are hungry. Over 800 million a day, with about 35,000 dying daily from hunger-related illnesses. “Give us this day our daily bread.” How does God envision that we relate to our need for daily sustenance with the needs of others?

As we considered the first part of this prayer in the last few weeks, I suggested we imagine “God the Father” as the Divine Head of the World Household (John Dominic Crossan’s phrase, from “The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer”). As a just and merciful gender-inclusive Householder, head of a multigenerational estate. God looking after God’s whole house, seeing that everyone, even the most vulnerable, gets enough. “May your kingdom, your reign of peace and justice, come.” We considered how we are called to be coworkers, partners in helping heal the broken House of God’s world. Today’s brief petition about daily bread moves us into the nitty-gritty of how life should go in God’s House of the World. And it is not just about me as an individual: not, give me my daily bread. Maybe this is the first piece Jesus wants us to understand: that we see ourselves in this need for sustenance together. As in the paraphrase of the prayer by John Philip Newell: “May there be food for the human family today and for the whole earth community.” If you don’t have food, this should be a problem for me.

But it is a huge challenge to maintain this awareness on a daily basis, to bring it to the consciousness of our children, to find ways to be around and work with and for hungry people. I’m beginning to think this is one of the most challenging spiritual practices there is today: what might I do daily that addresses world hunger, near and far? Might I pray about this a few times a day? Pick a country with food shortages and read about it, make a donation on a website, talk with my family about it? Find a food policy issue that worries me and pepper my congress people with letters about it? Help my children to choose three items for the local food pantry each time we shop together and deliver it? Really put a few more moments of attention to slow and careful table blessings said together at each meal? Grow some food – anything; cook some food mindfully? What would a daily spiritual practice of engaging our daily bread look like for each of us?

Jesus’ disciples would have heard this part of the prayer as they chafed against the control of the Roman Empire, where life for many within the Jewish community was precarious at best. People were conscripted for military duty, lost their land and were dealt taxes and tariffs on most aspects of their lives. This also included the local fishing industry, which was of particular concern to many of those meeting Jesus. Rome made commercial dealings more profitable for those in power, but far less so for everyone else, like the local fishermen. The fish you caught were taxed, as were your boat and your nets, and the materials used to repair your nets and vessel (see John Dominic Crossan).

So, the context for Jesus’ prayer is a tinderbox. But what is so incendiary about: “Give us this day our daily bread?” These words would resonate with the Exodus story for his Jewish followers: Their ancestors had fled slavery in Egypt and struggled with starvation during their years of traveling through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. But they were blessed with the appearance of “manna,” a substance that would last for about a day before spoiling, with which they could make bread. Enough was provided just for that day. Jesus’ prayer would seem to make a tidy circle, reminding them to trust God. Just pray for this day…don’t get greedy. Simple enough.

Not so simple and innocent, writes the New Testament scholar, John Dominic Crossan. He contends that this part of the prayer about daily bread may be the most dangerous part of Jesus’ teaching. “Jesus dies not for demanding charity or generosity of hospitality,” says Crossan. “(Jesus will be killed) because he insists the world and its food belong to God and not Rome.”  Over and over, Jesus would use both bread and fish to illustrate this reality: He would multiply not just wine, but loaves and fishes, politically dangerous acts where the Romans are standing by ready to tax all of any extra food production! Jesus spoke of himself as “the bread of life,” blessed and broke bread as symbolic of his own body and spirit that will nourish his followers. The resurrected Jesus stood on the beach directing his followers where to productively fish, then grilled them fish for breakfast. In front of everyone, Jesus kept enacting a living parable of God as Householder of the world. The Emperor of Rome is not ultimately in charge here; God is.

I wander the aisle of the supermarket and wonder to myself: what does it mean that God is in charge of all this plenty? What do I need, what is enough? I was eating blueberries one recent summer while serving in another church in northern Virginia. I was proud that I had not eaten blueberries flown in from Chile during the winter. I had waited for seasonal fruit to arrive. ”New Jersey blueberries,” I read on the plastic box. Pretty close-by to where I was living, but I wonder what it’s like to pick these things? My few minutes on the Internet revealed that there were ongoing labor violations in the New Jersey blueberry industry. Haitian migrant workers come up from Florida, enduring overcrowded and unsanitary labor camps, unsafe bus transportation. The Farmworkers Ministry of the Catholic Diocese of Camden had recently been established to provide a social justice ministry of outreach and advocacy among these farmworkers. Not in my backyard? Well, I’m eating the blueberries they pick, wasn’t I?

God the Householder of the World wants food security, enough bread and fish, for everyone. If your child is starving, you become insecure, angry and desperate. Might we learn more about the places of food insecurity in our Twin Cities? What are the choices facing these families? Paying for medicine or utilities or paying for bread. As hard as it is for us to imagine, many of these people are already working several jobs.
Maybe it’s our own anxiety about our own future that complicates our relationship with food. God is ready to partner with us, to guide and empower us and our choices, and we stay stand-offish. We stay muddled in our own worries and insistence that we figure this out ourselves. Perhaps we might try a new rhythm this week. Perhaps some more mindful tasting, savoring the things we eat each day, and giving thanks. And as part of this rhythm, then learning more about where it comes from, the environmental impacts of our food production, who is hungry and why.

Yes, this church has a long history of collecting food and food money for those in need. Meals on Wheels, sandwich making and food serving for those without food and shelter, financial support of our denomination’s hunger programs. We have started providing weekend food for kids in need at our elementary school down the block. But God and the whole food reality is much bigger than this. What could be the new spiritual practices we will engage around our own food consumption and the wider questions of food justice? As individuals, as families, as a church community? Begin by praying like this, said Jesus: “May there be food for the human family today and for the whole earth community…give us this day our daily bread.” Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer: the Kingdom of God’s good pleasure

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Let’s consider what we are asking for when we pray this part of the Lord’s Prayer. As the saying goes, different people really do approach life differently: Some see life, events around them, as a “half-empty glass” and some see it “half-full.” I wonder how life seems to you this morning? As you take a broad view, beyond your own daily encounters, do things seem to be getting better or are things getting worse in human history? This question hasn’t just perplexed our contemporary world. Ancient Greek and later Roman philosophers contributed to the half-empty/half-full debate: world getting worse, getting better? According to Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan (“The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer”), beginning about the mid-second century before Jesus’ birth, Biblical writers came up with a unique version of “glass half-empty or half-full.” They started claiming that the “glass” of human history was actually “cracked” and desperately in need of repair (p. 74). Something about God’s plan for the world had gone seriously awry. Their people were repeatedly under siege or conquered, and in times of peace and self-rule, justice and mercy no longer prevailed in their own land.

Around this time, the Book of Daniel spoke to this need for “world repair.” The book is filled with dreams and visions describing the four preceding empires that had decimated the Jewish people. Depicted as wild beasts, these empires were symbolically portrayed as horrendous creatures rising “up out of the sea,” the ancient mythological origin of watery chaos. The original audiences for this story would have laughed at the way some 21st century Christians take this imagery literally. They knew this was powerful poetic language that personified these seemingly permanent, imperial regimes as bizarre, bloodthirsty and dangerous wild animals. Babylonians who carted the population off into exile, destroying the Temple and Jerusalem. Medes who conquered the Jews upon their return to Palestine, followed by the marauding Persians. And finally Alexander the Great and the Macedonian Greeks, who were so innovatively brutal with their new-fangled weaponry and war tactics that Daniel only calls this beast as hellishly “different” – iron teeth, claws of bronze, trampling, breaking into pieces, devouring the whole earth. (And we give this Bible to children?).

According to Crossan, the author of Daniel is one of the first to articulate this idea that God planned an everlasting kingdom that would be vastly different from these beastly, inhuman and temporary kingdoms: “The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed.” This was to be a fifth kingdom, not time-limited, but everlasting. God’s kingdom or reign was to be personified not by beasts but by a person, the “son of man.” Or, as Crossan describes: “a transcendental Human one who has been entrusted with (the Kingdom) by God, the transcendent Ancient One.” The kingdom will be given to this “son of man” for the benefit of all humans. This is the start of the vision of “tikkun olam,” the Hebrew words for “healing the world” and the Jewish vision of a Messiah who would usher in this reign. And eventually Jesus will use this title, “son of man,” “son of the human one,” to describe his own ministry and purpose.

When we move to Jesus’ time, Israel is under the thumb of a “beast” of proportions that Daniel never could have imagined: the Roman Empire. It is both Daniel’s visions and this new Roman imperialist rule that are the context for Jesus’ self-understanding and the Lord’s Prayer. Our current and treasured divisions between politics and religion are frankly too simplistic to understand their world. Politics and religion were all intertwined. Nor do these contemporary distinctions help us imagine how Jesus envisioned the cracks in the glass being mended, the world being healed. For Jesus, God’s kingdom wasn’t a place (like up in heaven), it was more a verb. God reigns in a different manner than corrupt human rulers.

But what would this look like? Last week we explored the opening parts of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father/Abba, intimate papa, who art in heaven/in the whole universe, hallowed be thy name.” Consider the idea of God being like the head of a large household, the parental leader over a large, multigenerational estate.  John Dominic Crossan suggests that Jesus understood God to be the head Householder, taking loving and just care of everyone, in a worldwide “household” where there was peace and everyone was to have enough. The frail and vulnerable and the needy were to get special attention. So Jesus taught his followers to pray like this: “May your kingdom come and your will be done, here on earth as it is in heaven.”

What are we asking for when we say to God, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done?” This kingdom language may seem a bit strange for us in this country. Our nation’s founders were very much opposed to any kind of monarchy or absolute rule of a king or queen. We live in and celebrate our participatory democracy.  The Hebrew people in Old Testament times did not have a very good experience of kings and kingdoms either. These were independent tribal clans, constantly on the move with their flocks and families. Years later, after the Jews fled Pharaoh’s oppressive reign in Egypt, they were not too keen on a king with absolute power. They built a community based on their covenant with God: known most intimately with the giving of the Law on Sinai. They understood God to be their leader, and this would distinguish them from other surrounding nations and empires of their day. And within that covenant agreement with this ruling God, the people agreed to follow God’s laws, which taught an unusual sharing of power and resources among the people.

While Israel sometimes ignored these laws, the intent was for as little disparity as possible between the rich and the poor. Given the current debate about income inequality in our nation, particularly as to how this divides along racial lines, we might want to pay particular attention to where Jesus is going with this. The intent of Jewish law was that there be some kind of equity among everyone. Digging through the remains of these ancient communities, archaeologists have discovered that their houses, up until the time of the monarchy period, were pretty much the same modest size. But after the monarchy period starts in 1020 BCE with King Saul, archaeologists have found an increasing array of palatial dwellings (McMansions of the day) as well as hovels (p. 10, Crossan). Eventually later prophets start proclaiming that now Israel looks much like all the other foreign powers through history…power-hungry, vast economic disparity among the people, not caring for the poor and marginalized in their midst. I find there is something chillingly familiar and relevant about this critique.

Jesus was picking up on the prophets’ call for a return to God’s reign, style of ruling, with equity for all. Jesus was not just talking about some interior moral kingdom in our hearts; and this is were we get distracted in our life together as Christians. Paradoxically, he taught that “the Kingdom of God is within you,” an animating force already inside of us. But he also described a world around us in which fairness and justice for everyone must rule. And this world would come about not with violence, like the imperial beasts of Daniel’s time or Rome’s military might. Its power would come through nonviolence and mutual compassion. Jesus gets into trouble and is eventually executed because his preaching is a direct challenge to all kinds of domination systems of his day: systems like the violent, repressive rule of the Roman Empire. And systems of privilege and prestige within his own religious tradition.

Why pray for God’s will to be done? Some Christians will talk about “God’s will for your life” like it is a pre-set blueprint. And it sounds harsh, judgmental, and probably not much fun. We reduce “God’s will” to individual morality, or expand it far enough to say it is “God’s will” that a certain sports event, battle or war has been won for our side. But it is God’s will that the world be healed. In fact, according to Crossan’s research, the word “will” here actually means, “good will or good pleasure.” It is God’s good pleasure, God’s wish or deep yearning, for us to be living differently: in harmony, in fairness and peace. That is God’s will.

The Kingdom of God, God’s will done among God’s people on earth….it is happening and it is not fully happening yet. So pray for it, says Jesus. Pray for it with all your heart. But look out! Part of Jesus’ uniqueness was introducing this different paradigm through which to understand God: God doesn’t swoop in and intervene. God calls us to collaborate with God, partner with God’s good pleasure. And this partnering is going to change us. Jesus invites us to pray ourselves into this transformation of the world and ourselves.

How does this work? We pray it and then we watch for the opportunities to partner with God. And they will pop up. “Kingdom come/will be done” – use this as a breath prayer through the routine of your day, waiting for the elevator or while you’re on hold on the phone, while chopping carrots, pumping gas, sitting in a meeting at work. Then watch for the invitation to collaborate with God’s leveling, healing forces as God heals the world. What will it be? Will we speak up when a word of truth is needed? Will we read the news differently, vote differently? Will we stop complaining about something and find a solution? Will we spend our money in different ways? Will we finally forgive someone this week that has really hurt us? We dare not pray this part of the prayer unless we are willing to be changed, transformed into kingdom-bearers, partners in God’s reign. Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer: What’s in a name?

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — One of the things pastors love most is when other people pray, not us. Seriously, one of the most frustrating things is to have people assume that I am the only one in the room who can pray…out loud…appropriately. Over these next five weeks of Lent, I’m inviting us to take an honest look at our prayer lives. Not so much so we will start doing it “right” – whatever that might mean. I don’t believe prayer is simply about asking for a pony, or a new computer game, or even grownup things like a pay raise or a date, or even a miracle cure. I’m not talking about praying more efficiently or accurately, so God will change God’s mind and grant our wishes more often. I’m talking about prayer, words and silence, breath and movement that connect us most deeply with ourselves and with God who dwells within us. Prayer that connects us with this present moment, with all its joy and hurt. Prayer that enables us to maintain a sense of equilibrium, a certain flexible stance, while delights, success and surprises, and failure and suffering come into our lives. Lent is a good time to bore down into our prayer lives, and see what is or what is not going on for each of us.

I’m suggesting a journey through the Lord’s Prayer as our way in this year. Not because it is a magic formula that will get us what we want, but in large part because Jesus said something like: “Okay, you want to know about prayer? You wonder what I am up to when I retreat from the crowds, and go away by myself for some quiet, to talk with God? Here…start with this.” Which I find helpful, because it isn’t about having a correct belief to start with, or even a really firm sense that God is there listening. It’s sort of “do this and see what happens.”

The Lord’s Prayer. You may have said this prayer a thousand times over your lifetime, or it may be entirely new to you. Those who grow up in the church probably learn it as children, and it sure can seem pretty rote as we just rattle it off each Sunday. You say it at a rapid clip and finish it in less than 20 seconds,15  if you use the words “debt” instead of “tres-pass-es.” Jesus created this prayer at the request of his disciples, drawing on the beliefs, cosmology and mysticism of his first-century Judaism. It’s probably the best summary we have of his own values and unique perspective on the life well-lived. During the next few weeks I will offer some different lenses through which we might see this “inherited treasure” that has come down to us through the centuries (phrase from Neil Douglas-Klotz, “Prayers of the Cosmos”). I urge us to soak in these words through each week, and to work and play with them in some different ways.

In Jesus’ time, it was not unusual for teachers, rabbis, healers to teach a certain prayer to their followers. Jesus replied to his disciples’ request by saying: “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be Your name.” This is probably closest to the original words of Jesus, although the version from Matthew’s gospel may sound more familiar to us. (Take a look at the front of your bulletin, where we have included the references in three of the Gospels. Gospel of John records long prayers of Jesus, but it doesn’t mention this one!)  The Matthew version, written in the later part of the first century well after Jesus died, is a bit expanded and was commonly used by the early churches in their worship life together. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” which is our focus this morning.

In ancient times, one’s name had a certain power: it proclaimed your selfhood. Jesus starts by naming God: our Father. Immediately there is a communal piece to prayer with this word “our.” Apparently, we don’t do praying, or following Jesus, alone. We’re all connected in this act, to one another and to this Being. And the name gives us a clue about who this Being is. “Father” is a name for God rooted in the Jewish tradition, but Jesus adds something new we’ll consider in a moment. I included this Exodus reading this morning, from the Hebrew Scriptures, because these sacred Jewish writings are foundational to understanding the name and nature of God. These are anchor texts for Jesus’ life and ministry. This story of Jesus’ ancestor Moses and Moses’ encounter with God is the backstory to how Jesus understood God. Moses, born and raised in Egypt, is now in hiding as a shepherd because he killed an Egyptian foreman who was brutalizing a Hebrew slave. In this interaction with a burning bush, this encounter with an angel and finally with God’s voice, Moses is told that God wants to free the Hebrew people from oppression in Egypt and take them to a new land. Moses will lead them and God will go with him in this ominous task. Unconvinced that this is a good idea, Moses finally asks, “Look, I can tell them it is the God of their ancestors who has sent me, but they’re going to want to know your name.” God replies, “Tell them I AM has sent me to you.”  Literally, “I AM WHO I AM,” or even more accurately, “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.” Whoever it is – whatever – God’s name and nature is not static. By implication, there is going to be an evolving understanding in this relationship between God and God’s people, between God and all humanity, perhaps even an evolution in the very nature of God over time.

Jesus’ understanding of God reflects this evolution of that comes down through the Jewish Law and the Prophets. This is not a distant, capricious God, who punishes and rewards at whim. This is a forgiving God of steadfast mercy. And Jesus is going to push this tradition, like any mystic sage who also happens to be a creative and prophetic reformer. He will address God by an unusual name.

But what’s new here? God had been called “Father” in Hebrew Scriptures. One of the problems in understanding Jesus’ original intent is that he and his followers spoke Aramaic, the native Middle Eastern language of ordinary people at the time. After Jesus was killed and his followers experienced his resurrected presence among them, his sayings and stories about him continued to circulate in oral form in Aramaic. These were eventually recorded in Greek, which is the language of the New Testament. And as usual, some things have gotten lost in translation. Aramaic scholar Neil Douglas-Klotz, in his book “Prayers of the Cosmos,” claims that we have lost considerable “heart consciousness and prophetic juice” of the original Aramaic tongue. His work is controversial but compelling. He points to other familiar teachings of Jesus such as “be you perfect” – frankly, words that tend to set my teeth on edge. This scholar’s translation from the Aramaic suggests that Jesus was saying not “be perfect,” but “be you all-embracing.”

Douglas-Klotz draws our attention to the name “Father” at the beginning of the prayer. This name has become a bone of contention in many congregations: “Father,” in Aramaic, “Abba.” This traditional, patriarchal language is a real problem for some of us, and for others of us it is a comforting and well-loved title for God. But think for a moment of how Jesus could have started this prayer: “Our high and mighty one” or “Our Judge,” or “Our warrior king,” titles also used in the Hebrew scriptures. But Jesus uses the word “Abba” to address God. In Aramaic, this word was a child’s word: it meant Daddy or Papa. It suggests closeness, warmth, dependency. I have learned an additional piece about this word abba from reading John Dominic Crossan’s book “The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer.” The author claims that in their male-dominated society, the word “father” was often shorthand for “parents” – at that time, commonly father and mother. So the word “Abba” was not only intimate, relational language, but it also referred to what my kids used to call “the parental units.”

There’s one other new learning about this Aramaic word for “Father,” “Abba,” that I find fascinating. The root of the word also means “rises and shines, vibrates, in space.” I can feel my brain synapses crackle as I imagine this reality. Jesus wanting us to know that this shining vibratingness, the Oneness of God, was not something far away but includes every center of every activity and place we experience, and that has the potential for being. Vibratingness. I can’t help but think about the recent scientific discovery of gravitational waves emanating from the collision of two black holes in a far corner of the universe, billions of years ago, finally washing over our earth and being recorded! “Astronomy has grown ears,” proclaimed one theoretical physicist (Lawrence M Krauss, New York Times, 2/14/16). Could we be sensing, hearing, God’s vibratingness in a new way?

Of particular interest to me is that the Aramaic word for “heaven” actually means “the universe.” What looks like a geographical spot separate from us and our planet, “our Father who art in heaven,” is actually a place all around and within us. Ponder this for a minute; put on this different lens about “heaven.” Heaven is not a place separate from us, with angels strumming their harps and golden streets, and some kind of stern guy at the front gate with a book full of our personal sins. Heaven is a place all around us and within us. Filled with vibrating waves! God is in all this, shining, rippling, washing over and through our very being. This is sacred stuff moving through us, within us – holy, hallowed be God’s name!

Play with this first part of the prayer this week. Say it when you wake up in the morning. Set it to some vibrating sound as you say it. Sing it on one note: our Father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name. Try out the translation we will pray together in a few minutes, roll it around on your tongue: Ground of all being, Mother of life, Father of the universe, Your name is sacred, beyond speaking. Try just this first part as a breath prayer, while stopping at a traffic light: Our Father / who art in heaven/ hallowed be/ thy name. In and out. While washing dishes, shoveling snow, bathing the children, walking the dog, before checking your email. This is Jesus’ gift to us…let’s start to soak in it. Amen.

Lenten outreach: Have a heart for homeless youth

On any given night in Minnesota, 4,000+ youth and young adults are homeless and on their own. Beginning on Valentine’s Sunday, we will have the opportunity to open our hearts to some of those kids by donating to a Minneapolis organization called Avenues for Homeless Youth. Melissa Peterson, Community Engagement Manager at Avenues, will tell us about their work during a moment for mission in worship on Feb. 14.

Avenues provides emergency shelter, short-term housing and supportive services for homeless youth in a safe and nurturing environment. We have previously held gift drives at Christmas, and last summer Avenues was the recipient of water bottle and towel donations in honor of Rachel Flaherty’s 30th birthday.

You may bring gifts for Avenues residents from the list below at any time during Lent. We will have a big box for your donations available in the church lobby. We are collecting:

  • Gift cards in amounts between $5 and $25 from Target, Walmart, Cub, Walgreen’s, CVS, movie theaters (leave them with the church office, in secretary Colleen’s mailbox)
  • New clothing items in adult sizes appropriate for ages 16-20: sweatpants/yoga pants, T-shirts, A-shirts (tank T’s)
  • New personal care items: boar’s bristle hair brushes, washcloths