(Matthew 6: 5-15)
Growing up as a kid in the 1950s and 60s I remember every Wednesday being excused from classes to go to our local Methodist Church for religious instruction. The protestant kids would line up and walk up the hill to the Methodist Church and the Catholic kids would walk to the Catholic Church. My friend Keith, who was Jewish, got to stay behind. It didn’t seem fair as our time was spent in religious instruction and memorization. Many of us thought there might be something to this Jewish thing. And as my grandfather was the Methodist minister, I didn’t have much say in the matter anyway. It was during these classes where such things like the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer was drummed into us along with other assorted doctrines and teachings that required memorization. Some of those things we can still recite verbatim without even thinking about it. I’m sure our Sunday School teachers and parents got a chuckle out of our recitations and innocent malaprops as we mangled unfamiliar words and phrases. Earlier this week, as I struggled in my search for a sermon topic, I got one of those emails from a member that had several of those childhood religious bloopers reminiscent of Art Linkletter’s: Kids Say the Darnedest Things. Two that caught my eye involved the Lord’s Prayer. The first was: Our Father, who does art in heaven, Harold is his name. Bet you didn’t know God had a first name. Well, now you do, although I never figured him for a Harold. The second was: Forgive us our trash baskets as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets. Yeah, when the child heard forgive us our trespasses it sounded more like forgive us our trash baskets. Little did this aspiring theologian realize how on point this pronouncement was. Putting your trash in someone else’s basket is a trespass. It doesn’t belong there any more than someone else’s trash belongs in your basket. When I read that I thought; Wow, now there’s a sermon worth fleshing out.
And putting your trash in someone else’s basket is what Jesus is talking about in our scripture reading for this morning. Jesus is in the middle of his Sermon on the Mount and after he admonishes against doing charitable deeds before men, to be recognized by men, he talks to them about how to pray. He says: And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. He’s talking about those individuals who like to make a big deal, a spectacle of their public prayer to impress anyone and everyone who is watching. They’re doing it for their own edification, to give the impression to others of their extraordinary righteousness. Jesus says they have their reward. But you, he says, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. Jesus is telling us that our conversation with God is personal and intimate, just between the two of you where you tell God what is on your mind. And Jesus tells us that when we pray not to use vain repetitions as the heathens do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. He’s telling us to keep it simple, nothing fancy, just pray what’s on your heart and God will listen. Jesus says not to be like them for the Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. At this point Jesus gives them a simple prayer for them to model their prayer life.
In researching this sermon, I looked at several translations to see if I could find the prayer I learned as a child in Sunday School. You know, the one we recite here at Community every Sunday morning. But none of the translations I found used the language I had memorized as a child. Undeterred, I found it in all things Methodist. I found it in our United Methodist Hymnal entitled: From the Ritual of the Former Methodist Church. Apparently, it was the official Methodist prayer before we united in 1968 with the United Brethren. It’s the one that reads: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
This simple model prayer breaks down what we need to focus on into several components. First, we recognize our Father, our God who is in heaven, and hallowed is his name. Remember, the crowd Jesus was addressing during his Sermon on the Mount was almost exclusively Jewish. Hallowing God’s name was a central principle of Jewish ethics; live even among the Gentile, the non-believers, in such a manner that people will honor God. Acknowledging and honoring God is the beginning of all things and is central to the believer’s life and being. Everything we say and do should bring honor to God, or in the alternative, not make God ashamed of us, his children. And I’ll be the first to admit that’s a tough one as, on more than one occasion, I’ve done something that has caused God to roll his eyes, cluck his tongue, shake his head, or cover his eyes. I suspect that I’m not alone. Verse ten says; Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. “Your will be done” does not mean we are resigning ourselves to fate but are praying that God’s perfect purpose will be accomplished in this world as well as in the next. And how does God accomplish his will on Earth? Good question. He does it largely through people who are willing to obey him. This part of the prayer allows us to offer ourselves as doers of God’s will, asking him to guide, lead, and give us the means to accomplish his purposes. And that’s a big ask, a powerful commitment. We’re praying that God brings our will into conformity with his will. We’re praying not that God changes things, but that he changes people who will then change things. Prayer, in the life of the true believer, is an act of total confidence and assurance in the plan and purpose of God and that we are an integral part of that plan and that our life has a purpose in and through God. Give us this day our daily bread, is our acknowledgement that God is our sustainer and provider and that we must trust God daily to provide what he knows we need.
And then there’s verse 12 which reads: And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. Depending upon what translation you read it could be debts, wrongs, sins, trespasses, commissions, or omissions. Like the child said: “Forgive us our trash baskets as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets.” We’re acknowledging that we do have a lot of trash in our baskets, a lot of things we’ve done wrong for which we seek forgiveness. We want God to help us take the trash out and to lead lives where the basket doesn’t fill up as fast, where it isn’t overflowing. And God is good with that as long as we forgive those people in our lives who put trash in our baskets, those people who have wronged us, sinned against us, trespassed against us, done something to harm us, or failed to do something that ended up harming us. Jesus feels so strongly about this that in verses 14 and 15, after the prayer, he says; For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. He’s giving a startling warning about forgiveness; if we refuse to forgive others, God will also refuse to forgive us. But why? Because when we don’t forgive others, we are denying our common ground as sinners in need of God’s forgiveness. As mortal and flawed human beings, it’s easy to ask God for forgiveness, but difficult to grant it to others. It’s so hard to let go of the resentment, the animosity, the hatred. It occupies so much space in our lives that we don’t have the room or the time for doing what we should be doing, loving our neighbors as ourselves. A good rule to follow is whenever we ask God to forgive us for something we’ve done, we should pause and ask ourselves if there is someone who has wronged us that we have not yet forgiven. If that doesn’t put it in perspective, nothing will.
Jesus ends the prayer with; And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. God doesn’t lead us into temptations, but sometimes he allows us to be tested, and it’s usually when we place ourselves in those compromising situations. We should pray to be delivered from these trying times and for our deliverance, our safe passage. The Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10: 13; No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. The world all around us is full of temptations of every kind just waiting to catch us in a weak moment. In your prayers and conversations with God, ask him to help you recognize those temptations and to give you the strength to overcome them and choose God’s way instead. Help you to recognize the way out.
For Jesus, the essence of prayer is not public style but private communication with God. There is a place for public prayer, but to pray only when others will notice you indicates that your real audience is not God. Jesus encourages persistent prayer, but he condemns the shallow repetition of words that are not offered with a sincere heart. In prayer there is a connection between what God does and what you do. You can’t get forgiveness from God, for instance, without also forgiving others. You must humble yourself before God and then do the right thing. If you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God’s part. As far as God is concerned, we can never pray too much if our prayers are honest and sincere. It’s how He communicates with us, His children. So, before you start to pray, make sure you mean what you say and be careful what you ask for. If you don’t, you’ll never be able to empty your trash basket or live in peace with those who put trash in your basket.
Please pray with me.
O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds thy hands have made. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed. And when I think that you, your Son not sparing, sent him to die for our trespasses, I scarce can take it all in, that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin. How we so look forward to the day when Christ shall come with shouts of acclamation to take us home, and oh what joy shall fill our hearts. We will bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim, O God, how great thou art. Amen.