The Our Father

So I said earlier that these will be, in a sense, "virtual sermons"...but every once in a while we lay people get to actually preach, I'm sorry, give reflections on the Word, at a Catholic church. During Lent, as part of the preparation of catechumens for baptism at Easter (in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, know most often as the "R.C.I.A."), we have two prayer services where we formally present to our catechumens the Creed of the church and the Lord's Prayer. Since I help at my parish by coordinating catechesis, I was privileged to present and preach on the Our Father last evening. Here's what I said. (Note: our catechumen this year is a junior-high young man who is the adopted son of two gay dads -- hence the references to "dads" instead of "dad" are intentional here.)

You alrady know a thing or two about fathers…

Here are some questions, though: why are you just hearing this now, the week before Holy Week? Shouldn’t someone have clued you in on this before? Since this really is “the Lord’s Prayer”, shouldn’t have this been week one of RCIA instead of the second to the last week?

We could spend hours moving slowly, line by line through this prayer, and my first impulse as an academic is to do so…but I’ll spare you that torture. Besides, you’re going to have plenty of time – the rest of your Christian life – to stop and meditate on this prayer. And trust me, you’re going to hear it often enough.

We might still start off slowly, though…we might just start by trying to understand these first few words, these first two words, this first word, “our”. I’m going to suggest that among the wealth of meanings found in this prayer, there are two major things Jesus is teaching us by teaching us to pray this way; they’re both about who “we” are: to be children of the father means to want what God wants, and to be children of the father, means to let God do it. Praying the Our Father is, I think, about changing our hearts, changing our desire, changing the way that we want…and let me show you how I think the key might be this first word, “our”…

Notice from the start that we pray “our” father and not “my father”…by praying this prayer, we’re already being brought into communion with each other, being brought together as children of the same father, as equally valued and equally…well, childlike. Helpless. Needy. Asking. And we’re asking God for help not as an “I”, but always as a “we”, even when we seem to be praying on our own.

And we start off with what appears to be, at first glance, an attempt to butter God up – I’m sure you know nothing about that, David, flattering your dad’s to stay up late… “Hallowed be your name”…sounds a bit like an old Monty Python sketchy, where a rather portly pastor prays, “O Lord, you’re so very, very big…we’re all quite impressed down here.” But notice the subtle shift: hallowed be your name, not hallowed is your name: God still has some work to do, it seems, to overcome all of the injustices of our world, and it seems like we’re here to encourage him: make your name holy, make your kingdom come, make earth like heaven, that is, the way it’s supposed to be. But does God really need us to cheer him on? If not, then why pray this way?

I think, and this is what I think the first few lines of the prayer are up to, we pray this way to remind ourselves that being a Christian is being committed to God’s project, not our own project. To pray for the kingdom to come is a dangerous thing; a priest I know has a sign on his door, “Beware of God.” God’s love always unsettles us, always overturns our plans, always forces us to keep giving up our remaining selfishnesses, our remaining fears, our remaining hesitations about loving God and our neighbor. We can see above our baptismal pool where signing on to that agenda gets you. There’s at least one reason why the church waits until this point in our journey towards Easter and towards baptism to teach us to pray this way, because now we know, David, that as our elect, you’re already learning to want what God wants. We who join you have to ask ourselves, are we ready to sign up again for another year? Can we continue to try to want what God wants, to really pray for the kingdom?

And after we make that commitment again, we get our prayers for daily bread, for forgiveness, for deliverance from temptation and evil, and we learn more about who “we” are: we, the children of God, don’t feed ourselves, don’t forgive ourselves, don’t save ourselves – but God does, the God who loves us like your dads do. Signing on to God’s project doesn’t mean that we’re in charge of it, or even that we’re going to be all that great at it. Sometimes we help nurture the kingdom of God into flourishing, and sometimes the best we can do is get out of the way and let God be God. I think that the second thing Jesus shows us how to do here is to trust in God’s ability to re-create the world through us and, sometimes, despite us…we’re more like children helping dad cook supper by setting the table while he frantically boils vegetables, checks the oven, mixes the dressing, tastes the sauce …and, the amazing thing is, we really and truly get to brag at the meal, “I helped!”

David, I said that you’re going to be hearing this prayer a lot for the rest of your life, because we pray it together every time we celebrate the eucharist, every time we offer thanksgiving to God for all he is doing for us in Christ. And we pray the our father just before we share the meal, just before we share in knowing who “we” are, because we need to be reminded all the time who we really are. We are the people who know already what God’s up to. We are the children of the father who get to tell the world with joy, “we helped”. And now, David, as you prepare to be baptized, to be with us and join us at this table, we show you how Jesus taught us to pray, and are bursting with joy that you’ll be praying to God with us.

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