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Fourth Sunday after Pentecost: “Our Father”
The Collect for the Sunday closest to June 15
I have a very simple, personal message this morning. I remember a time in my life when I poured all my frustration onto Jesus. My health was poor, my family was conflicted, and I wanted some clear answers. Why hadn’t Jesus written down some directions for me?
I had second-hand accounts of his life and word; I had the opinions of generations of evangelists and theologians. But if Jesus was divine, and could do anything, why hadn’t he just sat down out in the desert one morning (having shaken off the devil) and set down some written words for me to follow?
I was a professional editor; I relied on texts; I wanted the unfiltered Gospel according to Jesus—signed, sealed, and delivered.
Do I sound like anyone you know? Well, in this story, I identify strongly with the disciples who were often baffled about what their Teacher was trying to tell them. They could see he was unlike anyone else moving through this life—clear, centered, calm, connected—especially when he came back from praying alone.
But although he was giving his followers the key over and over again, in actions and words, it didn’t look or sound the way they expected it to. So they could not take it in.
But, according to Luke, when Jesus returned from praying one day, the disciples thought of a new way to ask for a clue: “Lord, teach us to pray.” And his response became our master lesson for finding comfort and healing, for growing in awareness and compassion, for living into closeness with God: the “Our Father” or “Lord’s Prayer.”
So, on this Sunday, when we celebrate teachers, and students, and fathers, I suggest we look at just a small part of Jesus’ lesson about connecting with his Father, our Father. Because this prayer is not so much a text for us to repeat. It is a guide for us to live.
Sometime during my dark time, it dawned on me that The Lord’s Prayer was just the authentic guidance I had been looking for. Perhaps like you, I’d said it every night at bedtime as a child. I’d repeated it every Sunday as an adult. I even knew it by heart. As I was raised to say in the South, “Thank you, Jesus!”
But I yearned to go deeper into my Teacher’s prayer, its meaning but also its practice. I credit two books that led me forward and helped form my message today: Setting a Trap for God: The Aramaic Prayer of Jesus by Rocco Errico, and Learning to Pray: How We Find Heaven on Earth by Wayne Muller. Muller’s book opened many doors for me because I explored it with friends in a study group at my last home church. Their company was a saving grace.
Phrase by phrase, these authors place Jesus’ master lesson for us in the context of the world of Roman occupation, and in the faith and culture of Judaism. But, just as important, they also explain the ancient meaning of prayer in the native tongue of Jesus of Nazareth: Aramaic.
According to Errico, the Aramaic word for prayer, slotha, literally means “setting a trap,” that is, “adjusting our minds and hearts to receive God.” By entering a state of quiet openness, this word for prayer suggests, “we can trap all the love, truth, peace, energy, and compassion we need. . . . We can catch the thoughts of God.”
So, how do we enter this state of prayer? How do we let go of our sense of isolation and inner confusion and get clear enough to enter God’s thoughts, God’s presence? I invite you to look with me at Jesus’ two, simple opening words—“Our Father”—as the key.
Whether we say this prayer in solitude or with others, the first word, Our, reminds us that we are never alone. Taking in that understanding, deeply to the heart, can shift our awareness profoundly.
In beginning this prayer, we not only move outward from our preoccupation with our little self to connect with a Higher Power. We also acknowledge that we belong to something larger than ourselves. In Muller’s words, this “prayer honors deep, unseen connections that place us in kinship with all beings. Throughout this prayer, we hear the echo of our collective yearning—our Father, our bread, our trespasses.”
Allowing ourselves to enter this state of connection with others can then break down our sense of isolation or loneliness. As we pray, we can lovingly call to mind the person who first taught us this prayer, as Jesus first taught his beloved disciples. We can place ourselves in the company of all his followers—across the generations, across the world today—who still lift up this simple prayer.
And we can begin to extend loving kindness outward toward all of God’s “household,” as our collect names it: all people and all beings in this world; those whom we know; those whom we do not know. Our universal relatives.
And then, as we come closer to others, Jesus gives us the word for coming closer to the universal Source: abba. Errico explains: “Jesus envisioned God’s awesome and mighty presence being approached in a childlike way, by calling this presence abba”—equivalent to the English word Daddy.
This word reminds me of the way a toddler can boldly and humbly claim an adult’s lap—just climb up there and settle in. No permission asked: just with absolute confidence and trust of pure acceptance.
Jesus’ radical lesson to us is that this is our birthright, too: “Anyone can enter the household of heaven and speak directly with God.” David knew this. Listen to His voice in our psalm passage this morning: “But as for me through the greatness of your mercy I will go into your house.”
And the woman who boldly entered the Pharisee’s house knew this. Coming close to Jesus—kissing his feet, anointing them, drying them with her hair—she claimed access, too. Access to love—without being perfect, without being judged.
As students of Jesus the Wise Teacher, we too can learn to adjust our minds and hearts to come close to the Divine presence. And by naming this presence Daddy, Jesus does not define its gender. He chooses this word the word Daddy to show us the relationship that every one of us—of all traditions, cultures, and religions—can have with this loving parent. A relationship that is intimate, unafraid, connected.
That, I believe, is the heart of Jesus’ lesson of prayer. Like me, the disciples were yearning for a text to follow. But instead, he gave us a practice. A prayer through which we could break through our inner isolation or sense of unworthiness and connect: to each other and to the source of all love.
This was my path of healing out of my dark days. And as I began to adjust my mind and heart to the living practice of the Our Father, I began to see its lesson where I could not see it before—in my own daddy’s life.
Every Sunday, when I stand here, I wear this silver cross, which belonged to my father. He wore it when he stood at the church pulpit, reading the scripture in his beautiful, sonorous voice. On those Sunday mornings, he was often terribly hung over; sometimes, perhaps even a little bit drunk from the night before.
But he was there, front and center, not alone, in the household of the Church. Imperfect, but faithful enough to keep his obligation in front of family and neighbors. To live the prayer of relationship to God, with boldness and humility.
Thank you, Daddy. Thank you, Jesus. Amen.
~ Rev. Clare C. Novak
Associate for Interfaith Ministry, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church
Incline Village, Nevada
June 16, 2013