I love to build fires. We have a fireplace inside, one that we had going most of the day yesterday, as we watched the snow. And we have a firepit in the backyard, upon which we love to roast hotdogs and marshmallows on chilly autumn nights. One of my most critical pieces of equipment when I build a fire is my blower. It is a long hollow tube, designed to allow one to blow air into just the right place in a fire so that coals can be blown into bright flame. And as I said, it is one of my favorite tools in my possession.
It was made by a blacksmith, and we purchased it at a historic festival several years ago. For those of you who might not know what a blacksmith does, it is the historic artisan trade of turning iron into useful tools. For generations, the blacksmith of a town was the one who made the horseshoes, the nails, the hammers, and any tools made out of iron. The trade is still practiced, but obviously the work has been almost completely industrialized and those who practice blacksmithing do it mostly as a hobby or to make historic pieces, such as this one.
The job of the blacksmith is to take a raw piece of iron and heat it up very hot – red hot in fact – and then use a hammer to beat it into the shape that they want.
And, as I am sure you were just thinking, it serves as the perfect metaphorical object for us to better understand the Lord’s Prayer. But more on that in a moment.
The Lord’s Prayer. How many of us know its words by heart? Many of us probably don’t even know the first time that we heard it, or said it, or memorized it. It has always, just kind of been there. We pray it together every week in our own worship service (in case you are wondering, our version is more or less the King James Version of Matthew’s Gospel.) But not only is it used in public worship, but prayed in personal devotions, cross stitched by your grandmother, and heard in every exorcism movie whenever the priest wants to really do a number on the demon inside the little girl. We hear it all the time. And with everything that we come to know by heart, there is a danger in it losing its significance, of it becoming domesticated. So, this Lenten season, I invite us together to re-learn what we know by heart.
The Lord’s Prayer was taught by Jesus to his disciples, according to Matthew and Luke, and has been seen as the model prayer for all those who follow Christ ever since. And for us, during this Lenten season of prayer and preparation for the joy of Easter, I want us to return to the prayer that Christ taught, and perhaps learn something new about Christ’s call on our lives in the process.
Of course, we could spend a day on each word, but we have divided the prayer into sections, and this week’s section is from the beginning: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Again, I could parse each word and each syllable, but I have chosen three to focus on this week, and I want to take them in reverse order.
The first is “hallowed,” as in “hallowed be thy name.” Sacred. Holy. Set apart. Hallowed is not one of those words we use very often anymore. Every once and a while, you’ll hear something about the “hallowed halls,” as in the “hallowed halls of Allen Fieldhouse.” But for the most part, nothing is really hallowed anymore.
Which is why I think it is important to begin here and let the power of this word arrest us for a moment. God and God’s name are holy. Set apart. Sacred. There is nothing like God and we cannot completely understand who God is. It is significant that Jesus chose to begin this prayer in this way, for it names the dynamic of us being set apart as Christians.
In their book on this prayer, William Willamon and Stanley Hauerwas’ say it succinctly: “Jesus is odd.” If we are to call ourselves Christians, then we are signing up for this way of life that will by definition be odd. Set apart. Different. We are following in the way that is not the status quo. Not what the culture around us is doing.
The name of Willimon and Hauerwas’ book is Lord, Teach Us, reminding us that Jesus’ prayer comes in response to the disciples asking to be taught how to do this right. Jesus is instructing them in this odd, holy, set apart way how to pray. They tell us that we don’t have to ask: we will be taught. If not by Jesus and his prayer, then we will be taught by the consumerist culture around us, by those who crave violence, or by those who fail to treat one another equitably or lovingly. We will be taught. And so, we must chose our teachers wisely.
Willimon and Hauerwas repeatedly use the concept of bending. “This prayer is not about getting what we want, but rather for bending our wants toward what God wants.” The Lord’s Prayer starts with the idea that God is “hallowed” and is bending us toward the divine. Much like…a blacksmith! The Lord’s Prayer is like this heating up of our lives, letting us sit in God’s presence until we become red hot and malleable. And before it is done, we will see, it is much like a hammer struck full force, removing from us the waste and slag of a sinful life. In order to create a blower like this, there was a lot of bending required. It took both the heating, and the beating to make it bend in just the right way. Thus, we begin the Lord’s Prayer with a word of invitation and submission. “Lord, you are holy.” Implicit is the unspoken phrase: “Bend us toward your holiness.”
The second word that I pause at this morning is the word “Father.” I think it is important to look at why Jesus chose this word. Many scholars have understandably been anxious about the use of the word “Father” in this prayer, and anytime we use it for God. That anxiety is difficult for so many of us to understand, because the word and the concept of “Father” is nothing but positive, naming a relationship that has been supportive and life-giving for as long as we remember. But for others, it places God in some risky emotional territory, using a metaphor for God that harkens back to their own abusive fathers, or absentee dads. Or simply in its limitation: any word that we use for God is limited by our own language. Whatever word we use for God will be incomplete, limited, metaphor at best. When we say “Father,” we know that God is so much more than even the best possible iteration of one.
John Dominic Crossan makes this point, as he acknowledges that using the word “Father” is at best a metaphor. But, Crossan continues, it is also important to notice the metaphors that Jesus did not use here. In a patriarchal society, it is not shocking that he used male-specific language. What may be shocking is that he did not use one of the many more obvious male-specific images for God! The Lord’s Prayer is not addressed to a righteous king, a mighty warrior, or a just judge. Instead, Crossan points out, to a Father.
The family relationship metaphor is key, here. Crossan goes on to suggest that “Father in heaven” would connote more than simply a good dad. It would mean a wise and just householder. The model of a keeper of the house: protecting, merciful, fair, generous, a model for the next generation. These are the ideas that Jesus’ disciples would have had when he used the word father. And for us today, the Lord’s Prayer bends us toward becoming more like that Householder:
• Protective of the least of these in our midst.
• Merciful and generous and fair, seeing all as God’s children.
• Modeling for the next generation with grace and love.
So, we pray to God as our holy householder, keeper and protector of earth. In the framework of our metaphor of the blacksmith, we trust that God is creating and molding us out of a knowledge and purpose beyond which we understand. But we trust the hands of the smith to be wise and gracious.
The final word we look at this morning is actually the first word of the prayer: “Our.” Again, it is Willimon and Hauerwas who suggest that this is actually the most controversial of the words in the first phrase of the prayer. It is “Our” that is the most radical and profound of words here. If you doubt it, change the word in the prayer and see what happens:
My father in heaven…
Give me this day my daily bread…
Forgive me my debts, and I forgive my debtors…
Lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil.
The plural makes the prayer. If Jesus had taught his disciples to pray in the singular, how different would the prayer be? How different would the faith be?
And yet, when we pray, how often do we tend to imply the singular? How often is prayer about asking for what we think God needs to do? Or complaining to God for something that hasn’t gone our way? Or even thanking God for something that we have in our lives? All of it is rather self-focused. It begins and ends with what we want. Now, I don’t believe that these self-focused prayers are wrong. Or unbiblical. Throughout the Scriptures, we see that these are some of the most often-repeated words: Help. Why? Thanks.
But in the bending of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus is inviting us to a new level of prayer. Again and again, he uses the plural. Again and again, it is “our.” Jesus knew that for us to bend toward the holy-ness that is God’s call for our lives, we would need to move away from “my” and move toward “our.” It would follow the “odd-ness” of Jesus who taught us to turn the other cheek, love one’s neighbor, and forgive instead of demand forgiveness.
And so, I return to my favorite fireside tool as a metaphor for the Lord’s Prayer once more. I could have just as easily used as an example anything created by a blacksmith – the iron post upon which the birdfeeder hangs outside of our offices, a lucky horseshoe, or even a sword or a knife. But instead, I chose to bring a tool whose main purpose it is to stoke the fire.
Created by fire…its task in turn is to create fire.
For those of us hearing the Lord’s Prayer, our task is similar.
To allow God to bend us toward holiness by melting away our impurities…in turn to allow God to use us as a tool to bring others to a place to also be bent toward the way of God. It’s about “our” and not “my.” The Lord’s Prayer is a call to communal life. That’s why we say it together in unison every week. It is a call to live with one another and love one another in a way that is decidedly odd. This Lenten season, I invite you to do more than mumble the words that you have mumbled a thousand times before. I invite you to see the red hot work of the Spirit in your life, and in turn bring along those who need to be blessed by the Spirit in the same way. During these forty days, my hope is that you – that we – will together be blessed and challenged, and bent toward the will of God.