Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Sisters and brothers grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last night at the Easter Vigil, as I sat at the back edge of the courtyard in the gathering dusk, I noticed a junebug stuck on its back. It was flailing around, trying desperately to right itself. I’m not much of a bug enthusiast but I was struck by the pathos of this little animal, straining and straining to get out of its predicament. One solitary being in a silent universe, trying desperately to turn itself out of danger.
At the Easter Vigil we hear the stories of God’s saving actions from the beginning to the exile of Israel in Babylon. We heard about God’s free and loving creation of light and life, calling it good; Noah and his family surviving through the Flood; God delivering Israel at the Red Sea; the prophet Isaiah’s word of food and drink, life and salvation freely offered to all; the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, a multitude of dead whose bones are picked clean, being knitted together and breathed back to life; and finally the great story of the three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who refuse to serve the idol of the wicked king Nebuchadnezzar and survive the terrible punishment of being thrown into a fiery furnace.
These stories (and the other six we chose not to read last night) show us, from a sort of God’s-eye view, what we call the history of salvation. But from the ground’s-eye view, from the perspective of people in the middle of these events, they are stories of the struggle of life against death. The battle of the little junebug to right itself and carry on. It is a remarkable thing that we humans share these stories and pass them hand to hand, life to life, generation to generation, along with our very lives.
We share with all life a stubborn will to prevail. Unique among all life, we hand on those things that endure past our own deaths. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are wonderfully rescued from the fire by God. But they are still mortal, and they died a human death a long, long time ago. Their story speaks to us in two ways: to our human eyes, the three men are a witness to courage in the face of death and persecution. To the eyes of faith, their story is a foretaste of God’s final triumph over all death.
That is one difference between ourselves and the junebugs. If the bugs produced epic poetry or tragedy or streaming television, the story of the one who was flipped on her back while the giant creatures spoke and moved around her in a pattern she could not perceive or decode would perhaps be recorded and added to the great store of bug lore and wisdom, an attempt to make sense of this huge and hostile world in which they move.
Perhaps, in the scheme of things, our own attempts to make meaning of life’s chaos are no more significant.
The other difference between us and the junebugs is that we are capable of resignation. We struggle to survive, but we can also cease from struggle. This is not the surrender of despair, like the Israelites at the Red Sea who complain bitterly to Moses that they could just as well have died in Egypt. But when God asks Ezekiel the prophet if the dry bones choking the valley can live, the prophet says only “Lord, you are the one who knows.” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego do not try to escape or survive; they don’t lie or dissemble; they don’t make a break for it while the king is in the midst of one of his pompous speeches. They simply say “cast us into the fire if you wish, O king. God will save us or not. But living or dead, we will not bow to your idol. So put that in your furnace and smoke it.”
It is out of resignation that Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb early in the morning. She knows how this story ends. She will anoint the body of her teacher and lord. She will pay the respects to the dead that her religion and culture have given her to pay. She is not a fool and not delusional. This will be another story with two meanings: to human eyes, it will show forth her courage and devotion in defiance of the great evil that has crushed Jesus’ life; and to the eyes of faith, with the benefit of hindsight, when this story is told and retold, it will become part of the history with the flood and the Red Sea and the fiery furnace, in which God shows God’s faithfulness even past the point of death.
And she is so grounded in reality, so perfectly reasonable in her grief and devotion, that she cannot recognize Jesus when he appears to her. It takes her a moment, and the sound of her own name, to see something else.
And in a moment, the eyes of her faith and the eyes of her human reality become one.
In a moment, the story of her own devotion and the story of God’s salvation become one.
In a moment, she sees that Hell has been robbed of its prize, that the grave has been burst asunder, that the power of personal cowardice and collective evil that killed her lord has been broken and lies in ruins at his Hell-crushing feet.
“Tell the others that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, my God and yours.”
Mary has entered a new age. Mary woke up that morning as one link in the great human chain of endurance. But she witnesses a very different triumph. It is a triumph not just for one, but for all. It is the plundering not just of one tomb but of all the tombs of God’s saints. It is not just an escape from the flood, the pharaoh, or the furnace. It is the defeat of death itself.
The struggle for her, and for us, is to hold on to this victory in the midst of a world that has not yet grasped its own redemption, in the flood of days that have no obvious order or meaning and in which we move now forward and now back. The vigil last night was accompanied not just by visiting junebugs but by passing traffic, loud music, and the bustle of life that will not pause for death and resurrection. As we’ve opened the windows and worshiped outside in this season, we hear the world rushing in. Our world. We have stepped out of that world for a moment, but it flows on around us. And to me, at least, it has made our hour together each week, at the cross and at the empty tomb of the altar, at the power of God’s law and the promise of God’s Gospel, even more precious. It is Jesus’s world, right now on the other side of those windows. It is our world, It is Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s world. It is the junebug’s world.
And in the middle of it, there was a tomb that could not hold its dead. There was a grieving woman whose tears turned to awe and joy. There was sin that could not prevail. And above it there is a God whose final word is not struggle and death but life and salvation.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!
When the Italian painter known as Caravaggio took it upon himself to depict St. Peter denying Jesus on the night of his arrest, he painted him turned slightly away from the woman interrogating him, with his hands pointed inward. You can look this painting up on your phone if you want--do yourself a favor, I won’t mind. Just Google “Denial of St. Peter Met Museum” and you’ll find it. You’ll see on the face of the apostle all the emotions he must have been feeling: fear, sorrow, and a hint of shame. He looks sincere but miserable. As if, perhaps, he even wants his lie to be the truth. As if he wishes he had made another choice those years before on the seaside when he was invited to fish for people. As if he wishes he had been in Jerusalem by coincidence, just another bystander to another gruesome death of the Roman era. As if he is saying, “Not me,” and almost meaning it.
And this is Peter, the Rock, who gets his name from Jesus himself because he speaks up under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and names Jesus Son of God and Messiah. You, Simon, are the Rock, Jesus tells him. On you, the Rock, I will build my church, and Hell itself will not stand against this church’s onslaught.
Tonight, under questioning, at the edge of the scene, the Rock crumbles. Whether Jesus did not meet his expectations of the Messiah, or whether Peter did not live up to his own hopes for himself of bravery and loyalty, Peter fails. Denial of those we know and love is a hard sin because it is a denial of ourselves. “It’s not me. You’ve got the wrong guy,” Peter says. But it was him. And he is denying himself.
Good Friday is the eternal trial of an inconstant and wavering human nature placed side by side with the constant and unwavering love of God.
In the reading from the Prophet Isaiah today, we hear God’s servant shown forth as one who “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”
The servant was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; “and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.”
This one who is despised and rejected, who must be turned from in horror, turns out to be God’s own servant. Far from being cursed and outcast by God, the servant turns out to be the one who is carrying the sins of all, bearing the burdens, even pleading for those who taunt and abuse him. You will see the Servant, says the prophet. You will most definitely see him. But you will not like him. You will not cleave to him. You will look away and pretend you don’t know him.
This is a powerful human instinct. We are animals who are fine-tuned to recognize danger. We have a keen eye for who is winning and who is losing. We know when to flee the scene, when to hide, when to pretend we have nothing to do with all this mess. That’s all Peter is doing. That’s all the rest of the disciples are doing as they see the winds change and run for cover. “Not me!” Get out, get safe, make arrangements to live and fight another day.
But we can only do this to each other at a high cost. As soon as the cock crows, Peter weeps. The terrible weight of his disloyalty crashes down on him in an instant. A minute ago he would have run away long before if he could have. Now, if he could, he would take back those denials. He would own his love and bear the cost. So he weeps as his broken heart flutters back to its Lord. That moment, Lord, is not me.
It is the same man who denies and who weeps. That’s discipleship in a nutshell. We change, we hide, we flee, we weep with tears of repentance. We hide our face from God and then run back.
And this is why salvation is not won by ourselves, for ourselves. If we could bear our own sins and the flutter of our hearts, we would have to. There would be no alternative. There would be no grace and no mercy. Peter’s denial would be final. He had come to the critical moment, he had failed, and that failure would haunt the rest of his life, if he had to be responsible for his own salvation. I would have been a door he walked through and that locked behind him, never to open again.
But Peter does not bear his own sins. You and I do not bear our own sins. Jesus does. Peter can now say, and know, “it was not me who saved my soul.” If it depended on Peter the Rock, or James or John the Beloved or you or me, all would be lost. But it wasn’t Peter or James or John or you or me. It was Jesus.
This abandoned and betrayed and denied and forsaken and accursed Jesus bears his own cross all the way to the end because no one else can save their own souls. No one else can rest secure in God’s love. No one else can ever say of anything, “It is finished.” No one else can show perfect loyalty to those who hate and abandon and abuse him. The world turns away in horror and he loves us all the more. The world spits and kicks and just goes about its business and each wound of malice or neglect opens into an infinite ocean of love. It wasn’t me. It was him. It was Jesus. Jesus who loved me despite all, who bore my sins and infirmities, and who prayed for Peter, and you, and me, even when we did not know him.
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Way back in the 1990s, when I was just starting college, I was introduced to a rather obscure singer whose name I won’t bother you with. I didn’t get much into his music but one song stuck in my head ever after I heard it, the way a song sometimes does. It was called “Jerusalem,” and it was based on the phenomenon called the Jerusalem Syndrome. Some visitors to the Holy Land, mostly non-religious men in their 20s, have a psychotic episode and believe that they are figures from the Bible, that they are Christ returned to earth or another messianic figure. And the song starts with the lines that stuck in my head: “When I tell you that I love you, don’t test my love / Just accept my love / Don’t test my love / Cause maybe I don’t love you all that much.”
These words stuck with me because it’s such a different sentiment than the way popular culture usually depicts love. Love does not, in fact, in this song, conquer all. Love can’t accomplish everything. Love can bring you to Jerusalem but it cannot keep you from having a psychotic episode and wandering into the desert at your peril. And we should not want to put our love to the test, because it might fail if we do.
Today we come to the end of the story of Jesus’ life. And we have come to the last petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
This is a moment where our 17th-century translation of the Lord’s Prayer can be misleading. We might think of “temptation” as an urge that we want to resist: eating food we shouldn’t eat or spending money we shouldn’t spend or giving in to some kind of compulsion. And that’s an important part of it. Most of us know more than we let on about the situations in which we are liable to be tempted, and how to avoid them.
But the Biblical word here is bigger. Today, it might make more sense if we translated it as “testing” or “trial.” Do not bring us to the time of testing. Or more simply, Do not put us to the test. Do not test our faith and our love, God, because we don’t know if we trust and love you enough to endure. “Pray that you do not come to the time of trial,” Jesus tells his friends as he prays in the garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest.
And indeed, in today’s Gospel, everyone does come to the time of testing, and almost everyone does fail. Judas betrays Jesus. Peter denies him. Most of the rest of the male disciples flee. The religious leaders yield to their fear of Jesus. The Roman authorities put him to a cruel and unjust death. The agitated crowd at the Roman headquarters calls for his death. And the great majority of the city simply went on with their lives, probably trying not to think too much about the brutal actions of the Roman garrison in their midst.
Humanity does not endure this particular test. As we so often do not endure the test of being brave or loyal in the face of a system that can simply destroy a life with no more thought than a horse swatting away a fly.
It is a terrible thing to find the limits of our love, our faith, our hope, or our courage. We don’t know in advance what those limits are. We can speculate. But until we come to the moment of truth, we do not know. And we can, and should, always be training to expand those limits. And in a way that’s what church and the life of faith is all about: practice for our lives to be put to the test in ways we cannot anticipate. Learning to love God and our neighbor more selflessly; learning to trust God more simply; to hold our faith and to do what is required of us more bravely, even at a cost to ourselves. But most people have a limit. For most people, there is a test that we will fail.
And so we ask God, do not put us to a test that we may not endure. Accept the faith and love we have. Within this prayer is, I think, another prayer: give us only those tests we can endure, and which will strengthen us.
Because there is, of course, the second part of this petition: deliver us from evil. This line could also be translated as “deliver us from the evil one.” Do not bring us to the time of testing, O God, but instead deliver us from the evil one.
This part of the prayer has, in a way, already been answered. Because for all of the human failure we see today, one man endured. And God endured. The voice of temptation that has haunted humanity from that moment at the tree in the garden down to today did not prevail against the one human whose life carried all of us. The one person whose endurance and whose victory incorporated all of us. The one who represents humanity to God, and who represents God to humanity, was faithful until the end even to those who abandoned and spat upon him. In today’s story, Jesus comes to this time of trial and he does not falter. The evil one does not prevail. And so at the end of all our failing, after the limits of all our love, there is Jesus. He is the one who conquers, and he is the one who brings us, small as our love may be, into his victory. Amen.
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
As we spend a few moments today on this petition of the Lord’s prayer, I encourage you to think of a time when you have needed forgiveness from another person (we’re going to leave God to one side for the moment). And I want you to think about a time you have been asked to extend forgiveness to another person.
What did it feel like to need forgiveness?
What did it feel like to extend forgiveness?
What did you gain by being forgiven?
What did you give up by extending forgiveness to another?
Forgiveness is a difficult and emotionally heavy topic, which is interesting when you consider that everyone trespasses against others, all the time, and everyone is trespassed against by others, all the time. We all need to be forgiven and to forgive, whether you think about this in a religious framework or not. This is a human problem. It is not especially dependent on what you think about God.
But that process of forgiveness takes us to very vulnerable places in our lives. It brings us to places where we are emotionally exposed. So what are we even talking about? What are we asking for when we say “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”?
Forgiveness in the Scriptures starts with a specific loss or wound. It can be an injury to body or welfare. It can be a loss of reputation or honor in the community, such as slander or false witness. It can be a loss of relationship, a violation of the mutual requirements of family or between Israel and God. But it is always a specific harm.
And this harm produces a claim to retaliation or recompense. The Bible is very thorough on this. For a certain kind of harm, you make a certain appropriate restitution, which may be collected from you. The famous passage specifying an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life is a principle that limits the right of retaliation. “Only and eye for an eye.” If your neighbor, by malice or negligence, causes your eye to be put out, you can do the same to him. You can’t murder him.
The trespass creates a debt. Which is why in some versions of the Lord’s Prayer, today’s line is “forgive us our debts.”
So forgiveness means, first, that you release your claim to restitution, retaliation, or payment of a debt.
I have the right to collect something from you--literal or figurative payback. And instead I forgive you. And this is extremely intuitive if you’ve raised children. Their sense of justice depends on the ability to collect on a wrong done to them. This is a very human thing. So the Scriptures places some limits on this.
So in this prayer we are asking God to release us from the obligation to give satisfaction for our sins. We are asking God to give up his claim to compensation for the damage we do to our relationship with God. And in this prayer we connect God’s forgiveness with our own: Forgive us our trespasses, release our debts, eve as we forgive those who trespass against us.
This is hard, because as a society we don’t have a very clear idea of what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is not simply indulgence, where we decide to let someone get away with something. It’s not looking the other way, where we just try to hide the truth from ourselves. It’s not living and letting live, cutting some slack, or giving anyone a break. It’s not tolerating or approving any behavior. Forgiveness is none of those things.
So maybe because we don’t have a clear idea of what forgiveness is or what it is for, as a society we tend toward unlimited punishment. Someone may be convicted of a crime and serve their penalty, but the fact of a criminal record becomes a permanent punishment, inhibiting their ability to get jobs and housing. We allow debt to accumulate without limit. A payday loan can accumulate interest and fees so that the debt may be paid over and over without ever being reduced. We even impose severe and unlimited penalties for saying inappropriate things on social media years in the past, in ways that have nothing to do with getting people to act better. And a lot of this comes from the fear that someone will get away with something. That someone will not pay enough. So to be on the safe side, better to make the punishment unending.
That is a very difficult world in which to understand forgiveness. To embrace or extend forgiveness. It’s a difficult world in which to even conceive of a God who wants to forgive, who wants to be asked to mend relationships, to release the claims of justice in favor of the work of mercy.
That’s why it’s important to remember that forgiveness starts with dropping a claim. It doesn’t require you to like someone or even to stop being angry at them. It certainly does not require you to put up with any toxic or dangerous behavior. It does not require you to be a doormat. And in my work I’ve seen people struggle with the feeling that they are not able to forgive someone because they are not able to feel a certain way toward the person who has wronged them. But forgiveness doesn’t require any of that. It just requires opening your hand to release your legitimate demand for satisfaction. The apology may never be coming. The check may never be in the mail. The exposure of the wrong may never happen in the way we want it to. But we are all dependent on that same mercy.
And so it’s very powerful that we pray this prayer every day, and that we ask God for forgiveness even as we commit ourselves to forgiving others. It is hard to leave ourselves open to forgiveness--to say, in effect, I cannot pay, I cannot do what justice requires in this situation. I cannot restore your eye, or your brother’s life, or your health. I long to be restored and I wish this breach in our relationship to be repaired. And it is hard to hear these things, and to give that forgiveness in our turn. But here as in every other part of the prayer, here as in every other part of God’s promises, we participate in God’s economy of grace. God who longs always and only to give, and who would never take, even where justice permits it.
Today as we continue our Lenten series on the Lord’s prayer, I’m going to spend a few minutes on one line that stands alone: “Give us this day our daily bread.”
This is a simple, direct, and unconditional request that we make of God every time we pray this prayer. “Daily bread” is a lovely phrase. There is something very powerful about focusing on what we need now.
If you are anything like me, this can be a challenge. Tomorrow is like a magnet for our hopes and our worries. For me, I admit, it’s more about the worries. Today might be fine, but what risks does tomorrow hold? What processes are going on right now that will create problems later?
Home ownership, I’ve learned, has opened vast new opportunities for worrying about tomorrow. But it can be anything: finances, family, the future of our job or our industry, the future of our community or our society or the world, the ongoing loss of participation in religious communities. And worry can be a rational response to an uncertain future.
So if we are fortunate enough to have today’s needs met, and to have no worry about where our next meal is coming from, it’s tempting to think ahead. We need to think ahead, to some extent, if that option is open to us.
But when we pray, we pray for today’s needs. Give us this day our daily bread. Bread for today. Not bread for tomorrow, not a stable bread supply chain, not a bread annuity for life, but today’s bread.
Now it bears mentioning that for many people today, and for most people in human history, today’s bread is the big challenge and the big worry. “How will I feed myself or my children today?” is a terrible worry to have. It makes planning impossible. People who do not have a roof over their head or secure access to food, people displaced by loss of affordable housing or made refugees by war or natural disaster are all living in today’s need.
And so it’s very important that Jesus directs everyone’s attention to the needs of today. There are two time scales that matter in the preaching of Jesus: right now and eternity. The long term is not important to him. “Which of you by worrying can add a day to his or her life?” he asks, rhetorically. “Consider the lilies of the field, which do not toil or spin. But even Solomon himself is not arrayed in glory like theirs.”
This is the context for Jesus’s instruction to pray this way. Pray deeply into now; do not let your prayers be colonized by tomorrow’s worries.
For my part, I cannot say this prayer enough. God, give me today’s needs. Today’s work. Today’s blessings. Let me not be tempted to imagine I have control over tomorrow.
And it reminds me that I have the means to be the answer to this prayer for those who truly do worry about today’s needs. What we do not need today we are free to give to those who lack.
So we hear in these words to pray for now, today, what we need in this moment. But what do we mean by “bread”? Assuming, of course, that this is not to be understood strictly literally as a daily ration of carbohydrate-rich yeast and wheat loaves.
Here I love the answer Martin Luther gives in his Small Catechism (this is on page 1164 of your red hymnals if you want to read it yourself):
What then does daily bread mean? Everything included in the necessities and nourishment for our bodies, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright members of the household, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.
It’s a great list. And the idea is that “daily bread” includes not just what we need to exist, to survive. It includes the things we need for a good human life. Not luxuries, not excess, but the things we need to experience our full humanity--including the love of friends and family and neighbors, the dignity of good government, the blessing of good health.
So here is our prayer: Give us this day our daily bread. Help us to not worry about tomorrow. Help us to receive and to share today’s bread as a gift from you. And give us what we need, right now in this moment, to be fully human. Amen.
Dear Christ Lutheran Church family,
This week will mark a year since our first online services and the beginning of our attempts to continue the life of the church safely during the pandemic. We give thanks to God for the creativity, grace, and goodwill shown by our people over the course of that year. Today we're writing to update the congregation on our current situation and next steps. Please read, share, and be in touch with any questions or comments.
Where we are:
How we're adapting:
What we plan to do in the coming months:
As always, your continuing faithfulness and charitable spirit has made these steps easier to take, and our addition of in-person worship options easier to preserve, than they might have been. We remember to give thanks at all times, and to rejoice at the work of God among us even now.
Yours in Christ,
Pastor Ben Dueholm, on behalf of the Re-Opening Task Force:
Connie Uhri, Council President
Ginger Hagens, Council Vice President
Sharon Karol, Council Secretary
David Marshall, Treasurer,
Greg Nelson, Financial Secretary
Dr. Hando Nahkur, Director of Music Ministry
Dr. Tina Tonti
Joanne Osterland, Director of Christ Lutheran Presch
Last week we talked about the introduction and first petition of the Lord's Prayer: "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name." This week I want to talk about the following two petitions: "Thy Kingdom come; thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven."
These two petitions are distinct but related. We pray for God's kingdom to come to and among us, and for this to come about or be made known by God's will being done on Earth even as it already is done in Heaven. What is the coming of God's kingdom and the doing of God's will? We'll get to that in a minute.
But first I'm going to digress for a moment to talk about everyone's favorite topic: grammar. The Greek of the New Testament has verbs that change their mood or mode by changing their spelling, rather than by adding extra words. English speakers have to go through more work to use our verbs in all the moods available to us: You go to the store (indicative, stating information); you would go to the store if you could (conditional, stating an if-then scenario); I prefer that you go to the store rather than me (subjunctive, stating an open possibility or desire); go to the store please (imperative, stating a command or direction).
English used to be a little more flexible than it is now, and when our traditional version of the Lord's Prayer was translated, you could do a lot of this just with the order of words. "Thy kingdom come" could mean "that your kingdom might come--we'd like that" (subjunctive) or "Come now, kingdom" (imperative). We don't really use our language this way much anymore outside of church. In prayer, it's easy to fall back on a softer way of saying this. "May your kingdom come; may your will be done." But the original Greek version is in the imperative mood: "Come, Kingdom! Be done, thy will!" or maybe "Make your kingdom come and make your will to be done."
For Luther, the coming of God's kingdom means "whenever our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that through the Holy Spirit's grace we believe God's holy word and live godly lives here in time and hereafter in eternity."
And God's will being done means "whenever God breaks and hinders every evil scheme and will--as are present in the will of the devil, the world, and our flesh--that would not allow us to hallow God's name and would prevent the coming of his kingdom...."
I would prefer to expand on that, so that we see God's kingdom and will being made real to us not just in our own faith and in our own behavior but in the flourishing of human well-being around us, and the sanctification of the world through our actions and prayers.
When I wrote about prayer in my book Sacred Signposts a few years ago, I dwelt on these early Christian prayers and what they may have meant to those praying:
I’m still not sure what effect these people intended when they assembled for their work. When they prayed “Thy kingdom come” or “May grace come and may this world pass away,” were these words meant to hasten the completion of the Messianic age, shouts to nudge the wicked world’s mountain slope toward an avalanche? Or were those words a way of transporting themselves to that end, to the kingdom, to begin to dwell there as a present reality even in the midst of a not-fully-redeemed world, however long the fullness tarried in coming? Does prayer change the world’s timeline, or shift the course of an illness? Or does prayer change us?
Whatever we mean when we say these words, or whatever we imagine their effect is, they express an important longing for a redeemed world and for redeemed selves. The 7th century theologian Maximus the Confessor says this about "thy will be done":
Our reason should therefore be moved to seek God, the force of desire should struggle to possess him and that of anger to hold on to him, or rather, to speak more properly, the whole mind should tend to God, stretched out as a sinew by the temper of anger, and burning with longing for the highest reaches of desire. Thus indeed we will be found to be giving God worship in every way in imitation of the angels in heaven, and we shall exhibit on earth the same manner of life as the angels in having as they do the mind totally moved in the direction of nothing less than God
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
For the rest of this season of Lent, I’m going to mostly let the readings speak for themselves and instead spend some time on the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer is a part of daily public worship in the church and it is a fixture of home devotions as well. Along with the Ten Commandments and the Creed, it is part of what we call the Catechism, that is the basic instructions for people coming into the faith. It can be learned by heart from a young age and relied upon over and over again, as often as you need it. God never gets tired of hearing these words. If you do not pray this prayer every day, I encourage you to start right away. It’s part of my morning devotions every day, and it’s the prayer I say with my children at bedtime. And it’s a prayer at hand any time I need to pray but can’t think of what to ask for or how.
We call it the Lord’s Prayer because it is given to us directly by Jesus. It appears in Matthew’s and Luke’s account of the Gospel. In Matthew, it appears in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says not to pray by heaping up empty words. In Luke, Jesus offers it when he is asked “Lord, teach us how to pray.” And it also appears in an ancient Christian text called the Didache, or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. This source may be older than some of the books of the New Testament. And in the Didache, the prayer appears with no reference to Jesus teaching it. It is simply presented as the way Christians should pray. Our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters call it the Our Father, from its first words.
So this prayer is exemplary. It sums up in a few words what prayer is supposed to be for us. Jesus famously tells his followers not to heap up words in vain, but to pray simply, directly, and even in secret.
So let’s hear the first petition of the prayer: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
The first thing to note here is that Jesus tells us to address God as Father. In the history and theology of the Church, “Father” becomes identified with God’s role as wrathful judge. But in the Gospels, this term is meant to encourage us to approach God with confidence and love rather than dread. “Which of you, if your child asks for bread, would give him a stone?” Jesus asks, saying that God is still more willing to give us what we need.
And this takes away a common barrier to prayer: the belief that we are somehow not worthy or rightly prepared to ask God for anything good. “We allow ourselves to be impeded and deterred by such thoughts as these,” Martin Luther wrote. ““I am not holy enough or worthy enough; if I were as righteous and holy as St. Peter or St. Paul, then I would pray.” Away with such thoughts! The very commandment that applied to St. Paul applies also to me.” Our prayers are holy and acceptable if they are earnest, not if we ourselves have become holy enough for God to listen to. While I can tolerate all kinds of irreverence, to this day I find the idea of praying ironically or without meaning it to be very frightening. Our earnestness vouches for our prayer.
It can be hard to expect good things from God. I know how useless prayer can feel. But if we imagine God as a loving parent who wants to be asked for good things, simply and honestly, we don’t need to feel any inhibition.
The second thing to note in these words is that we ask that God’s name be hallowed. We might say instead “may your name be holy.” This is Jesus speaking in a traditional Jewish manner, in which God is only ever mentioned with a blessing.
And of course, God’s name is already holy: YHWH, I am what I am. It is a name powerful in itself, so powerful that in pious Jewish tradition it is not written or spoken except on the most solemn occasions. We cannot actually make God’s name any more holy than it already is.
But we pray “hallowed be thy name” so that God’s name may be made and kept holy among us and for us. This is a way of saying “God, make your name holy and precious and sacred to me and to the world.” We do this when we call on God for our needs, when we use God’s name to bless, when we honor God in our words and actions. And we fail to do this when we neglect to call on God, when we use God’s name to curse or deceive, and when we fail to honor God in our words and actions.
And this is part of the power of this prayer. This is why this first bit is so important. We may have no spiritual feeling. We may wake up and go through our day and go to bed without any sense that we are part of an eternal, divine economy with the source of all creation. We may not even be in the mood to ask God for anything we need. We may be embarrassed that we need it. But we can always offer this prayer up to God. It is there for you, all the time, whenever you need it. God, allow me to speak to you as I would to a loving father or mother. God, may I keep your name holy today. May it, and you, be precious to me above all the things you have made. In this, the prayer contains its own answer. Amen.
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
A sermon may seem a bit redundant on this particular Ash Wednesday, as we live through a grim reminder that we are frail and mortal. In all my years of ministry in Illinois I never thought to talk about the fact that Dante Alligheri, in the Inferno, depicts the very bottom of Hell as a place of frozen cold. As both my old friends up north and my new friends in Texas have reminded me, weather like this is familiar to me and should be no big deal.
And of course they’re right. I’ve been through plenty of weather like this before, at times in my life when I had to spend a lot more time outdoors than I do now. There have even been a few moments this week when I was tending to something outside at my house and the sheer bracing hardness of the cold air gave me an almost nostalgic feeling. Yes, I used to feel this way at least once each winter. The snow sinking under my feet. The gloves drying out by the air vent. The moment of defiance of the elements--I’m outside and I’m not defeated, I’m enduring.
But as we all know, and as I am learning for the first time, there’s a lot more to it than tolerating cold air. I didn’t bring my big winter boots or almost any heavy winter clothes down here in the first place. We don’t keep a giant fleet of snow plows and salt trucks on standby all year for this. Our electrical grid, which I’ve learned more about in the last few days than I had learned in my entire life to that point, is not designed for this.
So we, or our neighbors, lose power. Pipes freeze. Movement becomes dangerous. This weather might be in some places an inconvenience or a discomfort. For kids it could be a delightful opportunity to play in the snow while school is out. Instead it becomes a crisis. And we get stuck. I would like to have opened the church as a warming site, but our building has often been without power over the last few days. I would like to go out and help people from the relative security of my own home, but the roads are untouched by a plow and I don’t want to end up needing rescue myself.
In Dante’s vision of Hell, those stuck at the absolute bottom are literally frozen. They can’t move. They can’t free themselves. As I learned in ninth-grade science, heat makes particles move. Cold makes them slow down. At a point of absolute zero, there’s no movement at all. No union of separated particles. No coming together. No advance or retreat.
And as we begin this season of Lent, it’s worth remembering how sin does this to us. It separates us from each other. It isolates us. It freezes us. The Devil wants each of us on our own. The Devil wants us stuck in place rather than moving toward our Creator. When you fast or pray or give alms, Jesus says today, don’t do it like the hypocrites who want to make a show of their piety. Don’t try to put yourself apart, for the admiration of other people. Our fasting should be out of love, to draw us closer to God and to one another. Our prayer should be made out of love, to draw us closer to God and to one another. Our giving should not be to our individual glory but for the relief of human need and the glory of God’s kingdom.
If sin freezes us, Lent should be a season of spiritual thawing out. A season when we resume, or speed up, our movement toward God. And this is something we can only do together. This is why we make a public confession of sin, today and throughout Lent. It’s why we pray and fast and give together, our prayers and works of mercy imparting energy and power to each other.
The cold weather will pass soon. The snow will be gone. I’ll forget that nostalgic sharp feeling of the bitter wind on my face. Life will resume the painful level of normality it had last week. But we, in the church, will only begin to stretch ourselves toward God. To be set free from the cold prison of sin and death, and to do it together. Amen.
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When the door to the ark finally opened and Noah stepped out with his family on dry ground, with each animal according to its kind and, as a tradition of the rabbis teaches, Noah’s wife with the seed of every plant of the old world in her pockets to sow in the new world, what did they feel?
After hundreds of years of building the ark, to the ridicule of his neighbors, what was it like for Noah to see the full, terrible truth of the prophecy he’d been given? After the face of the earth had been purged of all evil except that which they carried in their own hearts, what future did they expect? What did they promise to leave behind in the old world? What mistakes did they resolve not to make again in the new world?
The story of Noah and the ark is one of many ancient stories of world-ending floods, from cultures and civilizations all over the world. The story in our Bible is not the oldest version of the story of a great flood, not by a longshot. The disaster of the flood seems to have a special place in human memory. It is both myth and history. It is an event in a deep, unsearchable past and it happens over and over again today.
In the New Testament, the story of the Flood comes up in a few different places. Jesus warns the people who listen to him that the present age is like the age of Noah: men were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, and no one expected the disaster until it comes.
And in the first letter of St. Peter, we hear the ark as a type, an early image, a forerunner of the grace of baptism. You have been shepherded into the ark of baptism, Peter tells us. You will endure beyond this present age of God’s patience.
The flood and the ark. Disaster and surviving disaster. It is a terrifying theme in our Scriptures. But for people my age and younger, our adulthood has been marked by a series of disasters that were met with public and institutional failure. Natural disasters are one thing. There will always be extreme cold sometimes in the South and extreme heat sometimes in the North. There will be forest fires and earthquakes and hurricanes. There will be viral pandemics. The question is how resilient we are to disasters, and how effectively we respond together. This makes the difference between a natural disaster and a man-made one.
Hurricane Katrina was always going to be a bad storm. What shocked Americans in 2005 was how chaotic and inept the public response turned out to be. And this pattern was repeated over and over again. Wildfires. Floods in Missouri and Iowa. Hurricane Harvey. Hurricane Maria, leaving the people of Puerto Rico, all of them American citizens, abandoned and ignored for months. The coronavirus pandemic itself. In all of these cases, we’ve seen systems break down. People actually do very well. They look out for each other, they take in their neighbors, they help out. But governments, utilities, and private corporations seem to have lost the ability or the will to meet human needs in a disaster.
After Katrina, there was at least some accountability. The mayor of New Orleans and governor of Louisiana were both defeated for re-election. President Bush was not eligible for re-election but his popularity never recovered. We promised we’d do better next time. We promised we wouldn’t make the same mistakes before the next disaster.
But at some point we stopped promising that. And we apparently stopped expecting accountability either.
As I saw pictures of friends melting snow for water in Austin or taking down their fences for firewood, I thought about this. Who, in a position of authority and responsibility, was ignoring this humanitarian tragedy in our midst? Who was prepared to really learn from it? Who would help and who would run away from the scene? And would it matter? Would anyone who ignored the plight of Texans pay a political price? Or will we simply move along and forget about it until it happens again?
This brings us back to Noah and that second planting of the world. Natural disasters are, ultimately, human stories. Deforestation, climate change, loss of natural wetlands, neglect of infrastructure, inadequate public resources to respond to a crisis, short-sighted decision-making, denial, optimism bias, extreme inequality: all of these things reflect our choices, not the whims of nature.
Noah and his children will mess things up again almost immediately. Humanity will be just as heedless after the flood as it was when Noah’s neighbors mocked the big boat. Human sinfulness will prove so stubborn and so profound that the only fitting response will be the incarnation, death, and resurrection of God the Son. God himself makes clear that one flood will never be enough. Flood after flood after flood is never enough.
So God makes a covenant: never again will God send a flood to destroy all life. The inclination of the human heart is evil from youth, God observes just a few verses before what we hear today. No point in starting over every time it gets out of hand.
God will be faithful to this promise. God will not destroy. God will mend instead. God will stretch his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross far enough to embrace all humanity. God will make of the waters of the earth an ark that can expand to protect anyone. There will be disasters and chastisements and suffering until the last day. But there will be no second great Flood.
And as always it will be our role to reflect that faithfulness in those decisions that are within our power. To draw on the strength we have seen and known as individuals, families, neighborhoods, churches that did not need to be asked to gather supplies or to take people into our homes, and extend that to the structures of power we all share. Can we, who have been brought into the ark of baptism, act out of love even if the human is not worthy of that kind of loyalty? Can we insist on justice and accountability today even if tomorrow will create problems of its own? Can we be a mirror of God’s love for our neighbors? Can we commit not just to generosity but to making things work, to making a vision for a better future where we are not doomed to lurch from disaster to disaster, always waiting for the next shoe to drop?
When the doors of the ark opened and the new world began, the answer to all those questions was Yes. The answer with God is always Yes. And the answer today is still Yes. The question is whether we will do it.
God's Work. Our hands.