First person plural: the Lord’s prayer and liberation

This is a reconstructed version of the sermon I preached as my last sermon as pastor of First Christian Church of Oakland, July 1, 2013.


The “scripture reading” for the morning was actually this skit.


How many people in the congregation knew that the Lord’s Prayer is actually in the bible? (Most hands go up, and someone shouts “twice!”) That’s right—the original and the extended versions. And because we hear it so often, it can be easy to forget that there are many things that prayer is teaching us about who we can be together. In fact, here’s how MUCH we can take it for granted.

[I then show this video clip from The Campaign]


The Lord’s prayer is something we share in common—it’s our common ground. Today’s “scripture reading” really illustrated that point. So this morning, let’s take a moment to reclaim this ancient prayer that we all know and assume we read the same way.


I’m about to hand out different versions of the Lord’s prayer, and invite you to meditate on what this version makes you aware of in the original version that you may not have noticed before. We’ll meditate on that silently as I play some music.


(At this point I handed out these prayers while playing this Marvin Gaye rendition of the Lord’s Prayer as meditation music.)


Now I’d like to invite you to get together with two other people, preferably not people you’re married to or related to, introduce yourself, say which version of the prayer you had, and how it made you look at the Lord’s prayer a little differently.


(We paused for 5 or so minutes of discussion)


(I brought us back together by singing “Spirit of the Living God.”)


Leonardo Boff was silenced by the Catholic church in the 1980s for his writings. He wasn’t just silenced for being Marxist like many other South American Catholic priests—although he was Marxist; he did think that the gap between rich and poor was too great and needed to be fixed. The main reason he was silenced, though, was his reliance on the Holy Spirit. In fact, one cardinal debating the role of the Holy Spirit at the time said,  “We don’t need the guardianship of the Holy Spirit; we have the hierarchy.”


Leonardo Boff taught that theology—a fancy word for “studying God”—needs two eyes: one eye to the divine, and one eye to the context in which we live.


Boff lived in Brazil when he wrote a book about the Lord’s Prayer. He worked with people in the city who were starving. He worked in the jungle with people who were starving. And he knew what prayer meant. He was a liberation theologian, which means he believed that the experience of poor people was where the study of God started. Here is what he said about prayer: “Prayer is not the first thing a person does. Before praying, one experiences an existential shock.” He then said that prayer is always “toward God” and “toward us”; we are not allowed the luxury of separating them.


In this congregation, we already understand that scripture has so many layers; there are passages we’ve known since childhood that have new meanings for different points in our lives—but it’s kind of a Where’s Waldo: you don’t notice those new meanings unless you’re actively looking for them.


Here’s where you get to participate in the sermon. What did you hear in your new version of the Lord’s Prayer? (One person noticed the language of nurturing in her version, helping us think of God as a mother. One noticed that the description of the kingdom of God was about creating peace on earth, not just about end times and Jesus coming back. One noticed that all of creation was to be protected and offered equal dignity, not just people. One noticed that language can get outmoded very quickly when trying to be contemporary.)


It’s amazing the layers of messages that are tucked into something we know by heart, isn’t it? Some of you are fans of the Colbert Report. Bill Moyers was on that show last week talking about economic inequality. [if you watch the clip, skip to minute 3.] He used the Lord’s Prayer to illustrate his point. He said, “It doesn’t say ‘Give ME today. MY daily bread.’ That’s the law of the jungle. It says give US today OUR daily bread.’” Stephen Colbert, a lifelong devout Catholic, said he had never noticed that before. He then commented, “But there’s always room for amendments.”


The reason I’m lifting up the Lord’s prayer on my last Sunday with you is that this is a prayer for a community, not an individual. That’s good news for us.


I’ve been spending a lot of time with kids, including the ones here today, and it reminds me of something: by the age of ten, some children have gone through hard things no one should have to go through, and some have known only comfort and love, but they all understand one thing: people should be fair; the world should be fair. Good people should be rewarded and bad people should become good.


This prayer is a prayer that helps us build the world that Rodney and Alanis and Michelle believe in.


That’s important for us at FCC Oakland.


It’s important for us when we pray by ourselves so we bring the realm of God into our school and work and home and family.


It also demands we not be left alone with God to work stuff out, and if we can’t, then tough luck. This is where I depart from this morning’s skit a little bit.


Part of how God answers this prayer is that it is not written in the first person singular: it rests on the shoulders of a whole community to answer the prayers lifted up to God.


When we pray the Lord’s Prayer as a community, when we pray the Lord’s prayer as followers of Jesus, we do not get let off the hook very easily. And this is why we cannot be good Christians by ourselves. In this very prayer Jesus is saying “there are no lone wolves in what I am building.”

  • So when we pray for our daily bread, we have to pause and ask who is not receiving their daily bread. And we must ask, who is not being invited to provide for those in need.
  • When we pray against temptation, we pray against temptation for everyone in the flock. We are each other’s shepherds—the OG’s and the first-timers.
  • When we pray to be delivered from evil, we pay attention to the real estate developers buying up land and raising rents and pushing people out of communities, and we respond to that evil collectively on behalf of our brothers and sisters.
  • We use both of our theological eyes: the eye on the gospel and the eye on the contemporary scene.


We have been on a journey together. And even if our paths part at this moment, we are still on a shared journey into eternity—the journey described in the second line of the prayer Jesus gave us: we are on a journey to create a community of God’s will here on earth that looks like the realm of God in heaven—a community where all are loved, all are treasured, all are given the chance to offer the best of themselves to one another.


I know that the road ahead might seem daunting.


I know that life together can feel pretty frustrating sometimes.


And I know that God has given you to each other because God wants you to be each other’s answered prayers.


That is true if you are a lifelong member of FCCO—and some of you remember times this congregation has been an answer to prayer—or if your only memory is of a small and kind community of a dozen or so. My brothers and sisters, this is not the first community of a dozen to change the world.


And although times are hard for us here and now, they were hard in the oppressed colony of Judea 2,000 years ago. God worked miracles in a place and a people. If God did it then, I know God will do it again, even if I do not know exactly how. And God will do it through you if you will let yourself be as powerful and divine as God made you.


We are all called to be the Lord’s prayer to one another, and I today I offer praise to God that we can continue to know God’s love and to be God’s love, always remembering that God’s is the kin-dom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.


(At the end of worship, I offered this benediction by Leonardo Boff about the phrase “Hallowed be thy name”: “We make the name of God holy when by our own life, by our own actions of solidarity, we help to build more peaceful and more just human relationships, cutting off access to violence and one person’s exploitation of another. God is always offended when violence is done to a human being, made in God’s image and likeness. And God is always made holy when human dignity is restored to the dispossessed and the victims of violence.” Let us go forth to make God’s name holy.)

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