Sermon: “Our Father Who Is In Heaven”

Delivered by Ruling Elder James Parks,

July 5, 2015, Hunting Ridge Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD.

 Matthew 6:5-9, Acts 17:23-28

Every child who attends Sunday School or Vacation Bible School knows the Lord’s Prayer. Any Christian who prays at all says it almost every day. It is the one common denominator of all the Christian churches. Every one of them, without exception, uses the Lord’s Prayer; it is probably the only thing all denominations agree on. But as much as we repeat it, I’ll bet we don’t completely understand how revolutionary it really is.

The great Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said “My religion is summed up in the first two words of the Lord’s Prayer.” Those two words “Our Father” are two of the most powerful and life-changing in the Bible.

In today’s scripture Jesus has just finished telling the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount not to be like the hypocritical Pharisees and Sadducees who took pride in their praying skills and showed off when they prayed, you know, using big words and acting like they are the only people who can get God’s attention. So Jesus says they had already gotten what they want. They had your attention. But Jesus says if you want God’s attention you need to do a few basic things.

First, realize that prayer is not a show it is a private conversation between you and God. Almost every time you read about Jesus praying, it says that “he went off by himself to pray” or he “went to a quiet place.” You see, you can’t have a talk with God with all the distractions of our daily life around us—the TV, the phone, the children, your spouse—it’s just too much. How are you going to hear God’s voice in all that noise?

Now Jesus was not saying we can’t pray in public. Indeed he encourages his followers when they are together to pray. In Matthew 18 he says: “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst.” You just have to agree on what you’re praying for, so the prayer is about more than just your selfish desires.

So he gives us a guide as to how to pray. He gives us the Lord’s Prayer. Now this prayer was never meant to be repeated by rote over and over; it was to serve as an outline, or guide of how to pray for the person who has devoted his or her life to God. If you simply memorize the Lord’s Prayer and repeat it without a sincere commitment to what it means, then you are just as guilty as the Pharisees and Sadducees of what one author calls “hypocritical mumbling.”

Let’s face it. We Christians aren’t good at praying. When we pray, we don’t listen to God. We read off a list of non-negotiable demands to the Almighty and then wait for Him to do what we want. We figure God is like this universe-sized ATM machine. We figure if we go to church, throw in a few good acts, spice it up with a sincere-sounding prayer, then we can cash out. But the Bible says that God already knows what we need before we ask. Notice I said, God knows what we need, not what we want, because we may want to win the lottery, but do we really need to win the lottery or do we need to manage our money better? We may want that good-looking woman or man in the grocery store to notice us, but do we really need that or is this just a heart-break just waiting to happen?

God knows what you need and the point of prayer is to make our requests known to God so we can depend on God, not to instruct God. My former pastor in Cincinnati, Rev. Clarence Wallace once said prayer is not so much about convincing God to do what we want God to do as it is about convincing ourselves to do what God wants us to do.

The words “Our Father who is in heaven” are so simple, so basic–I sometimes edit that to say “Our Father and Mother”– yet they tell you everything we need to know about God, ourselves and our neighbor.

First, they tell us that our relationship with God is that of parent and child. Period. All the other stuff you’ve heard for centuries about God goes out the window. How many of you were taught that God was a vengeful, cruel tyrant that would punish you by throwing you into eternal fires if you didn’t do everything She said? Then you were told that nobody is perfect except Jesus so there was no way you could do everything God wants. So you were condemned from the get go. For most of your life you walk around afraid of God and mostly you are afraid of dying. Just like Sam Cooke says in the song “A Change is Gonna Come “It’s too hard living and I’m afraid to die.”

But Jesus turns all that upside down. Instead, he says, our relationship with God is one of loving parent and child. Now we all know that most parents do the best they can for their children. There are some cruel and evil parents, but they are rare. Jesus makes that point when he says: “If you, who are so full of evil, nevertheless do your best for your children, how much more so will God, who is altogether good, do for you?” If God loves us, then God wants the best for us. Every parent in this room wants their child to be what? Happy?  Healthy? Live a full life? All of the above. So why wouldn’t God want the same for us?

Like a good parent God is there for us. God wants to guide us into the right way to live. God wants the best for us. Just as we trust our parents because we know they love us, why don’t we trust God the same way? If you would trust your parents with your life, why wouldn’t you trust God with your life?

God, like a good parent, knows His children are unique. My three children and three grandchildren are all very different. Each has his or her own personality, talents, good points and bad. But I want them to grow into who they really are, not what I want them to be. God has given each of us a unique character and a unique role in creating Her dream for us—that we all live in a peaceful and just world in harmony with all creation. The Native Americans call it “the path with a heart, living in harmony with all life.” So God, like a good parent, teaches us values, exposes us to new experiences, helps us learn sometimes by failing and lifting us up when we fall—all so we can grow into the special person we were meant to be.

These two words, “our father”,  also tell us who we are. If we are God’s children, then we are like God. We are similar to God. You know a puppy is a dog because it looks like its mother and father. A dog can’t give birth to a kangaroo. It’s not possible. So if God is a divine spirit, then we must have divine spirit in each of us. So when people see us they should see a reflection of our parent. They should see a reflection of God in us.

Think about what I just said. If God is our loving parent and we have God’s divine spirit in each of us, then that just blows away that whole idea that some of us are chosen and some of us are God’s favorite. Or that some of us are better than others. Or that our religion is the only right one.  Jesus says you are free from trying to sustain a lie in your life—the lie that you are separate from God that you are on your own in the universe. God is not only with you. God is in you. Think of what a daily miracle it is just to be alive. Every time you take a breath it is a gift from God.  You are connected to God.

For me the most powerful part of the first words of the prayer is that it does not say “My Father,” but “Our Father.” Not only is God a loving parent. Not only is God’s divine spirit a part of us. But praise God, God’s spirit is in all of us. All of us are children of God. As Paul says in Galatians 3:28 “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” And that is a world-changing realization. The same God that makes the sun shine on you makes it shine on the beggar on the corner, the immigrant crossing the border and the drug addict down the street. The same God that is trying to guide you to be all you should be is trying to do the same for the gang banger, the drunk, the terrorist.

It means that we are all relatives by marriage to God so what happens to one of us affects all of us. It means our parent loves all of us the same and wants us all to have that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that we proclaim on July 4 that God endowed to us all. But as we look around the world today, you know how far we have missed that mark.

From day one, July 4, 1776,  it seems the only people who were allowed to be free and who had the opportunity to pursue happiness were rich white men. If you were black, Native American, a woman, an immigrant or poor, you were not only out of luck, there was an army or police force or a militia somewhere to keep you in your place.

The tragedy is that over 200 years later, the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same. Remember, we are all God’s children and all of us, therefore, are worthy by birth of being treated with dignity and respect. Because we are all members of the same family—God’s family—we care about and take care of each other.

The early Christians got it right. Listen to how historian Eberhard Arnold (who was not a Christian) describes the early Christians:

Every one of them who has anything gives ungrudgingly to the one who has nothing. If they see a traveling stranger, they bring him under their roof. They rejoice over him as over a real brother, for they do not call one another brothers after the flesh, but they know they are brothers in the Spirit and in God. If they hear that one of them is imprisoned or oppressed for the sake of Christ, they take care of all his needs. If possible they set him free. If anyone among them is poor or comes into want while they themselves have nothing to spare, they fast two or three days for him. In this way they can supply any poor man with the food he needs.”                   

So what does it look like when we treat each other like we are members of the same family? Some of you know Rev. Tanya Wade, the pastor at Grace, one of our African American churches. Tanya was one of the ministers on the streets during the riots in April trying to get people to go home and to calm the waters. She tells the story that during the riots, a group of minsters were standing outside the church where they had been meeting and a group of gang members drove up and started cursing and screaming at the ministers. Instead of turning away—I’m sure some of them wanted to run—Tanya said she walked up to one of the leaders and hugged him. The other ministers joined her and soon all the gang members were being hugged. These big bad terrifying men started to cry. The minsters invited them in to the church to talk. Most of them said they had never been in a church before. And here is where it hurts. They said they had never been in church “because we didn’t think you wanted us.”

These are all God’s children and our relatives by choice. When we became Christians we promised our lives to God and pledged to spread God’s love everywhere we went. Look around. Our world is a mess. And it may be worse than you think. Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health conducted a study “Well-Being of Adolescents in Vulnerable Environments or WAVE for short. Last year they studied the conditions that young people live under in five cities: Ibadan, Nigeria; Johannesburg, South Africa; New Delhi, India; and Shanghai, China and in their own back yard of East Baltimore. The study was just released this year, so it is up to date. I won’t bore you with a lot of statistics, but I want to share some quotes from the study:

 Adolescents in Baltimore and Johannesburg appear to experience the most severe health consequences (from their environment) with high rates of mental health problems, substance use, sexual experience and pregnancy, and sexual violence…tthese communities appear to be the most toxic.

 The study also said that youth in East Baltimore suffer from issues that could be diagnosed as post traumatic stress syndrome because of their constant exposure to violence. Here is another quote from the study summary:

What we saw was that in Baltimore the primary issues centered on violence and safety—a concern greater than in any other city. Likewise, in Baltimore gun and sexual violence are the most pervasive issues while other sites described property crimes and harassment. As one 19-year-old young woman in Baltimore said, “Me and all my home girls have been in a domestic violence relationship.at the end of the day that is nowhere one would what to be, a man beating on you 24/7…or when you get into an argument  he feels like he can just put his hands on you whenever he feels like it.”

If we are all God’s children, where is the caring for our brothers and sisters? Back in the day, Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway had a hit song “Where Is the Love?” It says:

Where is the love
You said you’d give to me
Soon as you were free
Will it ever be
Where is the love

Where is the love when nine African Americans praying in a church get gunned down by a racist they welcomed into their midst? Where is the love when African American churches are being burned? Where is the love when 80 percent of the school children in the Baltimore, largest city in the state with the most millionaires per capita in the country, have to eat breakfast at school? Where is the love when Donald Trump can make obviously racist statements and move up to second place among Republican presidential candidates?

When we committed our lives to God, we pledged to spread Her love to everyone we meet and everywhere we go. We didn’t say we would wait for those who need our love to come to us. Jesus sent his disciples out into the world to preach God’s gospel. So we, too, have to leave the confines of these four walls and show God’s light in the darkness of our times. God promises us that if we try, He has our back, just like any good parent.

Laurice and I had an extraordinary real-life experience this past week, one of those moments that helps you see everything clearly. Tuesday morning we drove to pick up my sister’s dog at the kennel and take him home. To get to the kennel we had to drive through the western part of Howard County, through Clarksville, into Montgomery County, the two richest counties in the richest state in the richest country in the history of the world. We saw mansions—one was so large Laurice said it looked like a museum. There were signs for new developments on “one-acre estates.” We saw horses running through huge fields and luxury cars all over the place. The roads were well-kept, the air was clean, it was quiet. At the kennel we saw brochures for lodging packages for pets that offered the normal play times and feeding, but one package even offered bedtime stories and a doggy tuck in.

Later that same afternoon we visited our vacation bible school at the corner of Dukeland and Harlem Avenue, one of the worst corners in Baltimore. No mansions, just boarded up row houses, some about to fall down, next door to homes where people are trying to scrape by. No horses, no fields. No quiet tree-lined streets, just concrete and asphalt, an occasional bush. No luxury cars. One man told us of three recent shootings right there on the spot where we were standing. He pointed to a place on the street where he said he saw three police shooting down the street at a guy running away. No doggy tuck ins—but he said there were dozens of stray cats in the back alley who were let out from a house of a now deceased neighbor. He said all he wants is to get away.

These are the two extremes of the world we live in—enormous, even obscene wealth only miles away from extreme, even obscene poverty. As I pondered the text for today, these two images kept coming back to me. Then Paul’s words to the Athenians which Vivian read earlier rang in my ears:

The God who made the world and everything in it, he is Lord of heaven and earth.. He gives to all mortals life and breath and all things…For in him we live and move and have our being., even as some of your own poets have said: “For we too are his offspring.”

Baltimore, we have a problem. Racism and poverty cannot be pushed onto the back burner any more. We are all God’s children. None of us are more important to our parent than another. We are here to bring God’s dream of a world where everyone is free, happy and fully alive.

But there was hope on that corner Tuesday afternoon. More than 40 children from the neighborhood and from Hunting Ridge were playing together and learning together with teachers of all races. There was even a policewoman who was helping the children create crafts and I heard she was dancing with the kids the day before. There is hope, but we have to act like the we know we are all brothers and sisters in the spirit and in God.

That’s not a burden, but a joy. In the words of another oldie, but goody by The Hollies:

The road is long
With many a winding turns
That leads us to who knows where

But I’m strong
Strong enough to carry him
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

So on we go
His welfare is of my concern
No burden is he to bear
We’ll get there

For I know
He would not encumber me
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

If I’m laden at all
I’m laden with sadness
That everyone’s heart
Isn’t filled with the gladness
Of love for one another

It’s a long, long road
From which there is no return
While we’re on the way to there
Why not share

And the load
Doesn’t weigh me down at all
He ain’t heavy he’s my brother

Amen.

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