Good morning, Christ Church!
I must begin with a confession. While we continue to be very careful in regard to all the protocols (wearing masks whenever we leave home, washing hands regularly, staying six feet apart from others), Janie and I have been “out and about” a little bit these last several weeks. We have enjoyed seeing our neighbors socially distanced on backyard patios. And we actually took our children to a restaurant, where again we were out of doors with the next table at least ten feet away. Were we nervous? Yes, we were. But I must say that having the opportunity to be with friends and family outside of a Zoom call was really an uplifting experience. To have just a moment of normal interaction was restorative and gave me hope.
Please let me be very clear. I do not write this in order to encourage you to abandon whatever protocols you have in place that are keeping you safe and well! Nothing could be further from the truth. Each of us must decide for ourselves what we think works best in our present situation when it comes to COVID-19. Furthermore, do not go and sit elbow to elbow at your favorite watering hole or hang out at the beach with 10,000 of your new best friends! That is asking for trouble.
Instead, I share this with you because it has powerfully reminded me that we really are first and foremost social beings. Even those of us who are on the introverted side of the spectrum, who require our moments of solitude, still find interaction with the people around us an indispensable part of life’s joy.
I believe that it is God who has created us to be so. What was the very first thing Jesus did after presenting himself to John for baptism and then the temptation in the wilderness? He started calling Peter and the others into his mission. From the very beginning, the basis of the Gospel is first and foremost about relationship. Jesus did not come to hand the world a manual or a blueprint with the admonition, “Do this and you’ll be okay.” He came to form a community. He came not just to proclaim the love of God. He came to make it incarnate. And that only happens in and through relationship.
As John Donne wrote, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” We are all in this together, and frankly that is what I think has become the greatest challenge as our present circumstances extend toward an unseen horizon. We miss each other. We know deep down that we need to be in each other’s company. We understand that relationship is the source of both love and synergy. All of this is a gift from God.
Because relationship is an essential part of the divine plan, and it is what God desires for us, I am confident that the Holy Spirit will see us through to the day when we will once again gather around the altar in person. In the meantime, we will stay in touch with one another on Zoom and Facebook Live, through phone calls and texts, and by way of cards and letters. By God’s grace, we will stay connected. We have to, because we have a lot to prepare for in the coming weeks. A new Rector will be joining us soon. A new relationship will be established. Therefore, a warm welcome will be the first priority, and with it a resounding demonstration that we know that not even COVID-19 can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus or in spirit from one another.
In the meantime, as we shelter, we have the opportunity to focus our time and energy on the one relationship that matters most of all. Let’s get back to Matthew Chapter 6.
Faithfully in Christ,
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly, I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…”
As Jesus takes up the second discipline essential to Israel’s moral life and conduct, he once again makes it clear that there is a wrong way and a right way to pray. Succinctly put, it is not about how hard you hit your knees so that others might see how devout you are, nor the eloquence and the length of the prayers that you offer in order to impress. Remember that, when giving alms, there really is only an audience of one. The same holds true for prayer.
Now, I do not think Jesus is being critical of public worship here. He certainly attended the synagogue on the Sabbath and spent time in the Temple in Jerusalem during the high holy days. We are social beings. Communal gatherings celebrating our relationship with God and with one another are, I think, essential and intended for our mutual joy.
However, I do think that Jesus is saying to us that prayer is much more than these public gatherings. Prayer is an opportunity to enter into conversation with God, the creator of heaven and earth. It can happen at any point in the course of each and every day. And like any conversation, it is best when there are no distractions, when we can focus entirely on the one with whom we are having the conversation. That is why it is best to find a quiet spot and shut the door, in order to give God our undivided attention.
I am not going to attempt to parse the Lord’s Prayer line by line. Instead, I will highlight some of the key points Jesus is making as he teaches his followers the best way to approach such conversation.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes about the ultimate goal for all disciples; “until all of us come to unity in faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13) If our calling is to be more and more Christ-like, then we begin by faith with the knowledge that the transcendent God is also “Our Father.” Indeed, the word Jesus uses is “Abba.” This is not a reference to the Swedish band of the same name. It is the Aramaic vocative for “Daddy.” I know that this may not be helpful for those of us who have had difficult relationships with our own fathers. But we cannot miss the point Jesus is making. Just as Jesus is God’s son, so too are we the daughters and sons of the very same God. This is one of the most profound and beautiful insights Jesus reveals to the world. Whereas the people of Israel were prohibited from using God’s name, lest they die, Jesus says to us that we are now blessed to call that same God, “Father.” When we enter into that quiet place to pray, we are not trying to catch the attention of some divine being who has very little interest in us. We are having a conversation with the One who gave us the gift of life in the first place and loves us as a parent loves her children. This is how Jesus prays and he invites us to pray in the very same way.
The next focus of the prayer is on the holiness of God. In order to enter into this conversation, we must first acknowledge that our prayers are about honoring God. In the catechism of the Book of Common Prayer, we call this “Adoration” and “Praise.” (BCP 856-7) God is holy. It is God’s kingdom that we seek. And it is through fulfilling God’s will for and in our lives that this world will become more and more like Heaven itself. Therefore, our prayers begin with listening. What are God’s hopes and desires for us? In what particular ways are we to fulfill God’s will? How will the Holy Spirit lead us and guide us in our relationships with Jesus so that we might become more Christ-like with every passing day? There is only one way to find out. We must be still and we must listen.
It is only after we listen that we then turn the conversation to our own needs and wants. But even here, Jesus recommends keeping it simple. After all, our Father already knows our needs before we even ask! We need our daily bread. We need to be forgiven even as we need to forgive others. Above all, we need God’s help in times of trial and Christ’s love to avoid the temptations that lead us in the direction of evil. Certainly, we are invited to make petition, to name particular people and particular situations, including ourselves and our own. That is the nature of this conversation we have with God in Christ. That is the nature of our Father’s love. And when you get right down to it, prayer and love are very much the same thing.