Sermon Series: Missions with the Lord's Prayer in Mind

July 26th, 2013

4 Week Series

Week 1: Missions in the Name of God

Matthew 6:9

“Youth mission trip,” “summer service project,” and “spring workcation” are just some of the titles we have heard or used to describe organized acts of Christian mission to perform service with and for others in Christ’s name. Youth and adults give up summer vacation time and college students take a “work-cation” instead of spring break in order to live out servant discipleship. There are numerous passages in the Gospels that demonstrate and speak to Christian service, but the prayer of Jesus offers us some of the most important lessons in how Christian mission is rooted in prayer and our relationship with our God.

The Lord’s Prayer, or the “Our Father” as some faith traditions refer to it, is the most famous and most memorized prayer of the Bible. There are two versions of the prayer, found in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4. Because not all ancient biblical manuscripts of these passages are identical, notations are included in almost all translations in order to explain textual variations that are integral to translating and applying this ancient lesson in prayer.

Luke’s account opens the prayer with Jesus’ words: “Father, hallowed be your name,” while Matthew includes, “Our Father in heaven,” as the preface. Jesus teaches that prayer begins with and is rooted in the acknowledgment of the holiness of the creator God. Judaism, from its beginnings to today, teaches the sanctity and power of a name. Genesis describes God giving to humankind dominion over the creatures and created order and God allowing Adam to name all of the creatures as an act of co-creation with God. The creation story bears witness to the Hebrew understanding that to name is to have dominion over, hence the unpronounceable name of God, YHWH, (typically translated LORD in English translations). Of course, to do missions in the name of God carries with it the highest of expectations, clearly expressed in the third commandment: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God . . .” (Exodus 20:7). God’s very name is holy.

Prayer is anchored in our holy connection with the God who first connected with us. God speaks a divine word and the mere utterance brings life into being. We offer our words in prayer to God to nurture this sacred connection. The Lord’s Prayer first declares that God is the holy creator of all, and our connection with God makes us holy too.

As we are offspring of God and disciples of Jesus, what does the Lord’s Prayer teach us about missions? Perhaps a better question might be, “What does it mean to do missions in God’s holy name?” Certainly there is a distinction between the church’s mission and the missions we undertake to fulfill our calling or purpose to serve others as disciples of Jesus.

The church’s mission, according to the Great Commission of Matthew 28, is to go into the world beyond the safety of our homes and meeting places and tell of the transforming power found in a relationship with Christ. To “make disciples” is not a command to coerce people into belief in Jesus as the Christ. To do so would not engender true faith, for faith in God comes by gracious invitation and an inspiring encounter, not by means of a demanding imposition and rigid expectation. Jesus invited his first disciples, and invites us, into a relationship. Jesus did not provide a formula—“Say these words and you can join the club”—but offered an example of Christian community. The work of Christian missions is an extension of this relationship.

Missions is both an act of discipleship (following Christ’s example of service and justice), and an expression of God’s redemptive and unconditional love. We don’t earn salvation. Neither do we earn the right or necessarily deserve to offer or receive an act of service; it is a gift derived from God and passed along by faith through God’s followers.

Doing missions in the name of God requires an open acceptance of those whom we seek to serve. It demands that we start on the terms of those whose lives we strive to touch, and that means speaking in a way that all can understand. We Christians have unique language that we use matter-of-factly and presumptively, expecting non-Christians to follow along with what some might call “code words.” For example, a church announcement might read: “There will be a meeting of the confirmation class (translation: persons exploring their faith in Christ) following Sunday school (translation: Bible study classes typically held on Sunday mornings, but perhaps on other days and times as well) in fellowship hall (translation: a gathering place for Christians to enjoy each other in a relaxed social setting where food is often included). I made a reference to fellowship one day while in conversation with a local rabbi, and he inquired about the meaning of the word. He had never heard of fellowship. He opened my eyes to words that the Christian community often takes for granted as part of our faith language.

God’s name is holy, and to do missions in the name of God requires serious and prayerful discernment coupled with selfless and humble action. Discipleship costs something. Sacrifices often must be made for something to have value. Whether building for Habitat for Humanity, helping earthquake victims on another continent, or holding the hand of an elderly woman living alone, Christian missions are our opportunity to once again make the Word become flesh. Let us do so with humility, in the name of the One who first reached out to us.

Week 2: Thy Kingdom Come: What Are We Building?

Matthew 6:10

Jean Arnwine was a member of her church’s mission team that flew from Texas to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in January 2010, to work at an eye clinic for the poor that her church had built and sponsored. She was donating time that could have been spent with her husband, son, and daughter, not knowing that she would not make it home for her daughter’s wedding and would never see her family again. Jean suffered internal injuries during the Haiti earthquake when the clinic walls collapsed on her. She died before she could be flown to a hospital capable of treating her injuries. Although Jean lost her life while living out the mission of her faith, in death as in life, her Christian witness continues. Perhaps her testimony is made all the more powerful by her sacrifice and its consequences for her family and loved ones.

If missions fulfill the will of God, what does the kingdom of God on earth look like? What is God’s idea of the divine kingdom realized on earth? Certainly, building the kingdom of God is not merely about building an edifice, though we have plenty of those. One of my relatives from Minnesota remarked on his first visit to Texas: “I expected to see cowboys and Indians, but what I saw was so many churches!”

The Lord’s Prayer was given at a time of Roman domination. At that time, it was urgent, especially for people of faith who were potentially facing persecution under pagan imperial reign, to establish God’s idea of rule and order. Perhaps Jesus’ words in this portion of the prayer are a reminder that we must seek to understand the nature of God’s realm if our actions are to be consistent with God’s design for our lives and all of creation. The biblical text repeatedly supports the observation that Jesus’ intention for his followers was for them to think and act differently from others. Christians are called to look at the world through different lenses.

World famous architect Philip Johnson designed some magnificent buildings in his life. His last design was the Interfaith Peace Chapel at Cathedral of Hope in Dallas. The chapel will hold services for Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Spanish-speaking Protestant congregations. What makes this chapel unique is that it is one of the few buildings in the world designed without right angles in any of the exterior or interior walls. The interior walls are unique because they are made of a material that repairs itself from nail holes and “dings.” Johnson’s design is a visual lesson in the requirement for peace: think differently.

Building the kingdom of God requires much self-examination and the exploration of many questions. Is the church about membership or discipleship? We need not apologize for constructing buildings for the work of the church, since this is a practical and essential component when homes can no longer contain a growing faith community. An important question to ask when we do undertake physical construction regards the purpose of our efforts. Are we building an ecclesiastical mansion or a place for holy mission? I am not suggesting that all church architecture be relegated to the most simplistic utilitarian form, but I am asking that we consider the motive behind our efforts.

When we look to grow larger as a church, do we seek to be bigger for multiplying ministry or satisfying ego? Bragging rights can apply to churches too, as we proudly proclaim the attendance numbers at the Easter service or the new decimal place that is added in the annual operating budget. We need be honest about our true motives and desires, whether our faith community is large or small, because our devotion to Christ cannot ring true when we are dishonest with ourselves.

Small congregations may say that they welcome newcomers, but there can be mixed messages given to those who seek affiliation there. The unspoken message might be, “You can join us for worship as long as you agree with us, don’t try to change anything, and recognize that you will always be the ‘newcomer’!” One couple in a small town church where I once served said that they were still the “newcomers” to the congregation with which they had united thirteen years ago!

Edward Hick’s famous painting, “The Peaceable Kingdom,” is the artist’s representation of Isaiah 11:6-9. The text paints an image of a time when the wolf lies with the lamb and the child plays near the den of the cobra without fear of harm. It is an ideal world where peace can exist among the created order. Our current natural order requires that wolves eat meat, not vegetables, and parents must protect their children from that which they do not instinctively know to fear. I believe that the kingdom of God on earth that Jesus spoke of is not an expectation of a world where everything goes our way, but rather a world where we do what is within our power so that things unfold in God’s way.

Christian community is about selfless service, caring commitment, and daily discipleship that make a transforming difference in people’s lives. Before we put on our “tool belt” and launch forth into whatever missions work is at hand, examining the biblical blueprints may reveal that what God requires is hardly conventional construction but transformational change. For justice to be realized it may require bulldozing previous construction (physical, social, or ideological) and starting afresh. I want to live in a world where no child must go to sleep at night hungry, abused, alone, or afraid. I think that is the sort of kingdom that Jesus had in mind too.

Week 3: Bread for Tomorrow

Matthew 6:11

Norman Borlaug knew something about providing daily bread. He lived not far from me in the town of University Park, an enclave surrounded by the city of Dallas. Norman is credited with saving the lives of 1 billion people from starvation because he developed a type of high-protein, hardy wheat that grows in almost any soil. It was a feat so significant that he received the 1970 Nobel Prize for Peace, the Congressional Gold Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (accomplished by only four other people: Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, and Elie Wiesel). Providing daily bread is a vital task.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” What exactly does this text mean? Is it merely what it appears to be, asking for our essential need for nourishment, or does Jesus have something greater in mind? If we continue to consider the Lord’s Prayer as both a lesson in holy living and a model for our relationship with God, then connecting with God includes the reminder that, in the end, our efforts alone are insufficient. We are ultimately dependent upon divine providence for our existence. An essential element of prayer is to remind ourselves of that divine dependence. The Lord’s Prayer provides the occasion to reflect upon, and the opportunity to ask for, our needs for today.

This brief verse holds much meaning and a depth of possibilities for interpretation. Many biblical scholars suggest that this intriguing passage can also be interpreted “our bread for tomorrow.” If so, such prayer gives us a chance to look to the horizon and to seek God’s prevenient grace for what our future may yet hold. With that in mind, it is reasonable to believe that this text may be not only a reference to future needs but perhaps a plea to provide for the needs of all at the end of time. Prayer can also be apocalyptic and look to the ultimate conclusion of our earthly experience. I choose to focus on the needs of today rather than any apocalyptic concerns of the eschaton, because there are so many for whom there will not be a tomorrow without daily sustenance now. This truth must inform our actions and choices as Christian leaders in a world hungry for both bread and salvation.

Consider the following two disparate views of “daily bread.” A church in Frisco, Texas, decided to break the Guinness world record of nacho-eating by serving up almost two tons of chips, salsa, and jalapenos as a promotion to attract teens to a new youth ministry program. Giant heat lamps from local auto-body paint shops were used to melt the heaping mounds of cheese and chips. Thanks to the hungry hoards of teenagers who showed up, they did establish a new world record. Before this, I had never thought of nachos with jalapenos as an evangelistic tool!

In contrast, a youth retreat center in central Texas established a policy that food could not be used for games unless it was to teach the reality of world hunger. The camp’s director said that food fights in the parking lot and giant banana splits contained by thirty feet of rain gutter resting upon saw-horses on the sidewalk started her thinking about the message they were sending to the youth who participated. Using food wastefully did not reflect Christian stewardship when countless people sharing our planet faced starvation from famine and economic inequity. Thinking of “daily bread” is not only about sustenance but also an opportunity for prayerful reflection about stewardship and compassion.

Years ago, in my parent’s home, there was a familiar framed print on the wall near the dining table. Taken by Minnesota photographer Eric Enstrom back in the troubled year of 1918, “Grace” is now the state photograph of Minnesota. Enstrom photographed Charles Wilden, an elderly seller of boot-scrapers, in a posed scene portraying gratitude for simple gifts. In the portrait, Wilden is praying with his folded hands supporting his bowed forehead. His serene face, framed by his white hair and beard, conveys both peace and wisdom as he prays before his meal. The large family Bible with reading glasses upon it and the bowl of soup and loaf of bread that adorn the table represent simple but adequate nourishment for both body and soul.

When we gather around the family table or sit in the booth of the local café and prepare to take our meal, prayer becomes an act of claiming the holy. It is a sacred moment, made all the more rich by the presence of friends or family with whom to share the meal. God is with us in that moment, and so no one ever dines alone. Daily bread provides nourishment, God’s presence provides comfort, and our gratitude recognizes the blessed gift of both.

Whether our prayer is for the need of bread this day or sustenance in the days ahead, we entreat holy God not merely for the sake of our stomachs but for the emptiness of our souls. Adam and Eve walked in Eden’s garden in the cool of the morning and encountered God there. They were given a place of abundance that could supply all their needs. They squandered the abundance at hand for the temptation of what God warned they did not need. Innocence was shattered.

May we be satisfied with the blessings God gives while we work to fulfill the opportunities God provides, and in doing so come to realize that this is sufficient. God gives us enough if only we ask.

Week 4: Grace in the Name of Jesus Christ

Matthew 6:12-13

I think it is very appropriate that on the Sunday marking the transfiguration of the Lord, we are considering a quality of Christ that changes us and all who encounter such a powerfully transforming gift. I am speaking of the unconditional love of God that Christ exemplified and that we simply call grace. The Hebrew word, hesed, is the term that is translated in the Old Testament as “loving kindness.” The New Testament simply refers to grace as God’s unconditional love; it is an expression often found in the writings of Paul. In fact, it was so central to Paul’s construct of the Christian message that he often opened or concluded his epistles with this reference.

The two verses that we consider today are so rich in meaning and significance that they yield both enigma and revelation. They are simultaneously profound and controversial. Forgiveness is a radical and wondrous concept. To go against the human tendency for enmity, bitterness, and grudge-holding and offer unconditional forgiveness is truly a mark of Christian character. Forgiveness is the foundation of Christian ethics and the hallmark of Christ’s passion.

What is troubling about verse 12 is the latter portion, which implies— and is stated very clearly in Luke’s version—that we ask God to forgive us our sins (also rendered “debts” or “trespasses”), because we already have done so for those who have wronged or are indebted to us. I prefer the translation I learned when growing up that implied it was reciprocal: if we forgive others, then God will forgive us. By contrast, if we don’t forgive, then we remain without forgiveness. This seems a more reasonable transaction than stating to God, “OK, we’ve forgiven everyone, now forgive us!” The question remains: have we forgiven everyone and can we truly ever make that claim? In the truly unreasonable way of God, we are forgiven without ever holding up our part of the bargain.

The Lord’s Prayer is a lesson about the nature of the holy relationship that humankind shares with God. There is presented here the ideal of the kingdom of God toward which we are to live. The prayer speaks to the perfect present and ideal future. It is not about ultimatum—forgiveness out of obligation—but rather reciprocity: when we live the fulfillment of the will of God, the forgiveness we offer is reflected back upon us by the One who originated the gift. This is far more satisfying and less loathsome than the thought that we may place demands upon God or declare ourselves to be as thoroughly forgiving as the divine grace that God alone can supply.

Although our focus is the grace of Christ, we cannot ignore verse 13, which leads us to end the prayer on a troubling note, pleading for God to not “bring us to the time of trial.” There is also the request for salvation from “the evil one.” Considering the first-century context, it again appears to be addressing the early Christians’ fear of persecution. These fears would not be fully realized until two centuries later when the Roman Empire took a stand against Christians who refused to make offering to Caesar, although almost everyone else of any religious conviction was willing to do so. How ironic that those whose religious tenets were grounded in unconditional love and acceptance were also the ones most intolerant of demands to pay homage to any but the God whom Christ had revealed. The Christian community had yet to see the worst of their troubles, and Jesus’ prayer prepared for the yet unknown future, whether near or distant.

Grace is easier to understand when we see it as deserved. I know an amazing musician who offers such grace in the name of Christ to “the least of these”—children who are ill, dying, or with challenging physical or emotional conditions. He is the founder of an organization with a primary mission of providing healing experiences through the performing arts for children with special needs. I have heard him tell of his touching experiences looking into the eyes of children with cancer, many of whom have wisdom and an understanding of life and death that is far beyond their years. It can safely be said that the generous offering of unconditional love that is poured out for these innocent children, whose lives have been profoundly altered or cut short by illness or circumstance, is something that would be met with almost universal approval and be considered well-deserved. Most of us would want such love to be extended to these precious little ones. Extending that same grace to incarcerated offenders of the law, however, is another matter.

Violent offenders whose actions have desecrated human decency, torn the fabric of society, and taken the lives of victims for little or no reason seem unworthy of grace. Jesus’ demonstration of God’s grace says otherwise. Christ’s ministry was not limited to those who lived or believed a particular way but extended to all—even the most desperate and unlikely of sinners. In Jesus’ last agonizing moments in human form, he extends forgiveness to a criminal who hangs crucified alongside him. What a lesson and legacy of unconditional love and forgiveness!

In the first sermon in this “Lord’s Prayer Mission” series, I said that Christian mission is both an act of discipleship (following Christ’s example of service and justice), and an expression of God’s redemptive and unconditional love. God’s grace renews the world whether or not we believe in God or accept God’s divine grace. God’s belief in us is not contingent upon our belief in God, and that defines the astounding nature of grace and establishes such unqualified love as the amazing offering that it is. Doing Christian missions with the Lord’s Prayer in mind begins and ends with the holiness of God and the gift of God’s grace. That is the greatest truth that Jesus tells us about prayer and Christian service; both are to be done after the example of Christ and in the name of God.

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