Sermon for July 28, 2019 | Pentecost 7
Genesis 18:20-32; Psalm 138; Colossians 2:6-15; Luke 11:1-13
I invite you to consider the social context in which Jesus taught his followers to pray this prayer included in Luke’s gospel. Biblical scholars and historians note that close to 90% of the population of Israel were peasants who lived with subsistence, from hand to mouth each day, or with next to nothing. Let us allow that staggering figure to rest with us a moment – especially those among us who do not worry for a second about adequate and more than adequate food, shelter, clothing, transport, and medical assistance. Imagine, if you will, waking up each day and wondering: Will there be any food to feed me, or feed my spouse, or feed my children? Would such uncertainty not produce considerable anxiety? Let us allow that staggering figure to rest with us a moment as we consider the 10% – made up of land owners, the Roman occupying force, and government bureaucrats – who controlled just about everything in life. Imagine, if you will, controlling the lives of so many others by gobbling up the produce they harvested in the field or caught in lake or river, controlling the lives of the many by imposing harsh taxes on them – taxes which would never ever be used for the benefit of the many, and if they could not pay the tax or provide adequate produce, making the unfortunate 90% into perpetual debtors to the 10%. And, then imagine, if you will, the collection of that tax by the religious leaders who were collaborators with the occupying colonial power. I wonder: Would you have good and warm feelings about your religion and its leaders or would you begin to wonder if the religion of your ancestors had been transformed into an oppressive institution that cared little for your needs and those of your kin?
It is within this miserable context that we hear Jesus commend these words to his followers who – guess what? – were peasant laborers: “When you pray, say: Father, give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our debts for we forgive everyone indebted to us. Save us from the time of trial.” That is, save us from a trial in court before a crooked judge. Dear friends, this is not a prayer that imagines God blessing some people with prosperity and punishing others with poverty – even though many Christians have accepted this distorted and pagan viewpoint over the past 2000 years. Rather, it is a cluster of petitions voiced by those who have little if any control in life, little if any sense of their own agency, calling out to their Creator and Redeemer for help, for liberation from a life controlled by others who see the chronically needy as a source of cheap labor who will fill their coffers with ill-gotten wealth. What did Jesus claim for himself at the beginning of Luke’s gospel? Do you remember? “The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor and to liberate those who are oppressed.” Is it any wonder that halfway through Luke’s gospel, the prayer he teaches is a clear expression of his mission announced at the beginning of the gospel?
It is a prayer that expresses Jesus’ clear commitment to those who frequently dwell on the margins of society: children, orphans, women, widows, the chronically sick, those who struggle with poverty, those who are dependent on others due to mental or physical challenges, refugees fleeing violence, the unemployed, those who are dying, those who mourn. And it is this: a prayer of resistance to those forces – be they economic, political, religious, or social – that disregard the image of God in which all human beings – all human beings – are created. As our own Christ Church member and biblical scholar, Doug Oakman, has noted in his book on the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus was primarily concerned with human relationships – how humans might care for other humans – in the reign of God revealed by Jesus.
I have been reading a book entitled American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, a book written by the historian Colin Woodard. At the beginning of his lively treatment of the regional cultures, he asks the question: Why do Americans have such a difficult time agreeing on basic issues? Indeed, after the election of 2016, he published a lengthy article in which he claimed that the outcome of the election was quite understandable in light of the great differences that divide these regional cultures from each other. A prominent difference and point of conflict is this: some regional cultures are utterly dedicated to the rights of the individual alone; and some cultures, smaller in number than the former, are equally dedicated to wellbeing of the many. That struggle – between “me and mine” and “us and ours” – expresses the two forms of Christianity in this nation: one devoted to the individual and his or her personal and frequently private relationship with God and the other devoted to the communal and ethical relationship between Christians and the world in which they live.
Dear friends, it is not for nothing that the prayer Jesus gives his followers, gives us, is voiced in the first person plural: Our Father … give us bread … forgive our debts … save us in the time of trial. That prayer, indeed all the prayers and acclamations of the liturgy we celebrate here, are voiced in the plural, the social; not the singular, the private. And the use of “us and ours” expresses, I say, who we are called to be and what we are called to do: to become clear witnesses in our daily living to Christ’s solidarity with those who suffer in the kingdom of this world, who wonder if there will be bread sufficient for the day, and to resist those forces, those attitudes, those stereotypes that diminish and degrade what God has created in God’s good and beautiful image. Shall we rattle off this one prayer known by all Christians as if it were nothing more than a token of religious identity or will we slow down and allow its wonderfully subversive poetry to temper our hearts and our lives?
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, `Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, `Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Luke 11:1-13