Friday, July 06, 2007

"Lord's Prayer" sermon

Here is my original text from which my Father's Day sermon on the Lord's Prayer was taken. It always varies some in delivery. At the end what you don't have execpt in paraphrase is that I read directly from the closing from Carl Scovel's "Beyond The Lecture" sermon republished in the UU Christian Reader anthology. I will try to add it when I have time. The reading was from Amy Jill-Levine's sections on the "Lord's Prayer" taken from her great recent book on Jesus called "The Misunderstood Jew." If you don't have the UU Christian Reader book or the Levine book, you should :). I can sell you the Reader from our UUCF inventory. What I have noticed since at The Living Room Church we have conversation and not sermon-centered worship is that it gets harder and harder to write out a sermon ahead of time; even delivering it orally would be different and difficult; conversational mutual exploring and still containing "proclamation of the gospel" is beginning to spoil me to the more modernistic spectator-oriented ways of most churches. I will have more to say about the "theatrical captivity" of the worship service soon.

“Our Father” sermon Hope Church in Tulsa, Rev. Ron Robinson, 6-17-07

It is risky to preach a sermon on the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father” on Father’s Day—the last thing many fathers need, even on this day, is a God complex.

But actually the “Our Father,’ or as I like to call it the Disciples Prayer because it was taught to those following Jesus, is a very good antidote for that God complex, to fathers, to political leaders, and religious leaders. So it is risky but it is good to be reminded of it, and especially introduced to its new versions and even its original versions. As Professor Amy-Jill Levine said, the real problem with it is that it has become either too familiar or too connected with only the Christian tradition. It’s spiritual power breaks through that familiarity and can speak to all of us.

You may know that there have been lots of revisions of it down through the ages; lately new translators have gone back to the Aramaic Jesus spoke and recreated what it might have been like in that language. The earliest we have is in the Greek language of the New Testament and that differs between Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts and both of those differ from what you find in the English translation of the King James Version which added on the final doxology that isn’t there in the original Greek versions.

New translators have picked up on the “Our Father” bit the most too, and have said something like “Creator Parent” is a better depiction of what Jesus would have spoken. Many others go for the essence and reword it to speak to new generations.

But before I get to them let me see if you have heard one of the latest. It is from the singer-songwriter Susan Werner and her new album The Gospel Truth. She refers to herself as an agnostic evangelical. I like her version. Full of faith and has the kind of radical in your face approach Jesus’ would have had for his first century listeners. (I then sang the song acapella)

Thy kingdom come to every nationThy will be done in everything we doLord, lead us not into temptationAnd deliver usfrom those who think they're YouLord send us forth to be of serviceTo build the schools and dig the wellsAnd deliver us from the creepy preachersWith their narrow minds and very wide lapelsLord give us strength to bring compassionto every corner of the worldAnd please allow for women in the Catholic priesthoodAnd remind the pope that he coulda been a girlLord deliver us from politiciansWho drop Your name in every speechAs if they're Your best friend from high schoolAs if they practice what they preach

And then there is the one from Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible called The Message. More orthodox but poetic and captures the spirit well:
Our Father in Heaven Reveal who you are. Set the world right: Do what’s best—as above, so below. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. You’re in Charge! You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.

And the UU version by Lala Winkley in our hymnal:
God, lover of us all, most holy one, help us to respond to you, to create what you want for us here on earth. Give us today enough for our needs, forgive our weak and deliberate offenses, just as we must forgive others when they hurt us. Help us to resist evil and to do what is good; for we are yours, endowed with your power to make our world whole.

As Professor Levine writes, especially in light of the Jewish tradition in which Jesus lived and taught, this prayer has dimensions for many today. It has been an historic part of many of our oldest Unitarian Universalist churches and is still recited weekly in a minority of them today. Most are in the Council of Christian Churches within the UUA but other historic ones do too. One of my favorite stories about our free church tradition is about the use of the Lord’s Prayer in public worship.

I was visiting the First Unitarian Church of Worcester, Mass. For worship. It was founded in 1785 and so it is one of the new kids on the block for our churches in New England. It has within it a good variety of theological orientations among its members; one of its ministers is a past president of the UUCF where I am on staff and a few of its leading members are leaders in the UU Buddhist Fellowship. And there are others as you would find in most of our churches, especially the largest majority which hates to be labeled as anything.

The worship included the Lord’s Prayer, traditional language as it had been said in that church from its beginning. And then right after that, one of the ministers, who describes herself as a Theist but not Christian, gave a sermon on why Atheists are welcome in the church.

In my position, I spend a lot of my time talking about Christ to Unitarian Universalists, but I also get to talk to Christians about Unitarian Universalists, and I like to include, to them, that parable of the free church that took place in Worcester. It answers the question they have of what attraction UUism has for a Christian. For me it gets to the radical heart of the gospel of freedom and the approach to the spiritual life Jesus and Paul and other early followers exhibited before the Empire became a part of the church and changed things. So when I get that question how can you be a Christian and a UU, and get it from both UUs and Christians, it gives me a chance to tell the Worcester parable, to talk about the spirit of religious liberty in the church, and to ask back rhetorically, especially to my fellow Christians: how can you not be? With parables that good happening all around in our free churches.

This prayer has been an important part of my own spiritual life as well. Just as being a father has. From the time I became a father for the first time in 1984, and went to part-time or at-home work much of the time when my daughters were in their pre-pre-school years, I have tried to break free from my cultural “default mode’’ of a father’s role. I chafed when I was called Mr. Mom. I said no I wasn’t “babysitting” when asked about having them, as I was juggling one of them on my hips in that swaying motion, in the long long shopping lines. I was one of those dads before there were the diaper changing stations in the men’s restrooms, and have plenty of stories of doing diaper duty on the carpeted floor of the men’s rooms in fancy hotels as the men stepped around. I could only imagine their looks because I was in too much of a hurry to get things done and get out.

I have tried to break free of those pre-conceived roles, but not always successfully. Workaholism, even volunteer style, is a big problem for many and not just fathers of course. Learning to be disciplined in one’s own life so you can impart it to others. Finding a calm center so you can provide a safe environment and not go from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. The great UU theologian James Luther Adams once said there is no such thing as a ‘good man/good person.” There is only a good father. A good husband. A good citizen. A good neighbor. A good worker. Etc. That goodness doesn’t exist in an other-worldly spiritual realm, but in our relationships. And I would add that all of our relationships are, no surprise, related. It has been a learning curve to understand that being a good father also means being, just for example, a good husband, a good housekeeper.

Back in 1994, daughters 10 and three years old, I was wrapped up in the starting of a new UU church in Tahlequah and with other community activities and was busy here in Tulsa on the Nimrod literary staff and was nearing my peak in my fiction writing career, and I was at a spiritual loose end inside. I was only just dipping my toe in the world of UU Christianity then, having been a UU since 1974, and like most of us in the UUCF having come to our Christianity actually in and through our free churches and most often not in our UU Christian churches. I had just started a campus ministry at NSU where I had once been a student and faculty member and one of the programs one of the students arranged was for a favorite faculty member and folk musician to come talk about his spiritual side. He was Roman Catholic, another of those parables of the free church, and he talked about a daily practice of once or twice a day being in meditation with the Lord’s Prayer. He shared it with us.

That night when I got home, in bed before falling asleep, I tried it again. And have ever since. At first I admit I would bungle some of the words. It had been a long time since my Methodist upbringing. But soon it became a part of my life; the words coming to me in times of anxiety, in times when I needed, as we say in parental support groups, to be calm, consistent, courteous, and courageous.

I also, even when I wanted to, had a hard time praying. It wasn’t a part of my UU adult life up to then. And I know as a writer I was always stymied in spoken prayer too because I thought I had to get it just right, use the right words, don’t pause or stumble or repeat myself or be mauldling or mundane or god forbid sentimental—all those UU sins of perfection. But the Lord’s Prayer spiritual discipline helped even though it was as much or more meditation than prayer. Still, just as what I would tell writing students, you develop your own voice by first learning and moving through the voices of the writers who are better than you.

Gradually, the more I prayed the “Our Father”, with its basic rhthyms of the themes of gratitude, plea for justice, for simple sustenance, for forgiveness, unity, and down-on-your-knees deliverance from temptation and evil, the more comfortable I became with prayer in other ways. It really came in handy during my hospice chaplain days, as a healthy reminder that it wasn’t about my anxiety, and how good or not I thought I was with prayer, but about being present with the dying and their families.

Over the past 13 years I don’t know how much of a better father it has made me. I don’t know how much of a better Christian or follower of Jesus it has made me. Both of those labels, father and Christian, since they are inherently relational, mean they are never finished. I have never arrived. And that is one of the spiritual lessons the prayer has taught me.

Over the past 13 years my meditation on the prayer and its words has taken me deep into it. Like my colleague Laurel Hallman in Dallas in her work on spiritual practices called Living by Heart and particularly with poems, I know the value of having memorized something so well it can come to you in lots of different ways, places, and times, and you can go deep into it. Even if you only have a minute, or think you only have a minute. At different times, dwell on a word, or the silence, or the movement of words.

I have spent much time in meditation never getting past the “Our” in “Our Father.” That might be one of the most important parts of the prayer and doesn’t get near the attention that the gender gets it. But Jesus here doesn’t say “My Father” but “Our Father.” Right away that takes us out of ourselves, reminds us of our wider relationships and identity, and that is good news for all fathers, for all.

And as Levine points out, the Father language has a political cultural edge to it. Like Jesus’ parables about the “Kingdom of God” they are reminders that the powers here on earth are not the ultimate powers, not who we ought to ultimately be answering to and seeking to align our lives in accordance to. These may be false powers in the White House, in our neighborhood associations, in our jobs, or in our own human hearts.

I will close with a story in this vein about Fathers and Our Father. One you may have heard before, but can stand to hear again. Like Levine says of the “Our Father” prayer, beware of familiarity and thinking you have it all understood. I think this story is becoming part of our UU testaments, though it comes largely from Tex Sample, a United Church of Christ seminary professor and great storyteller. I know it because of a story one of my mentors, Carl Scovel, told after he gave the annual ministerial Berry Street Lecture at our General Assembly, coincidentally also in 1994, the year I began meditating on the “Our Father.”. Carl this year celebrates his 50th year in ministry and has been chosen by the 50-year colleagues to give the talk for them at this year’s General Assembly.

Carl delivered his essay called Beyond Spirituality. In it he said that at the heart of all reality lies a good intent, a purposeful goodness, from which we come, by which we live our fullest, and to which we shall at last return. This is the supreme mystery of our lives. This goodness is ultimate—not fate, not freedom, not mystery, energy, order nor finitude, but his good intent in creation is our source, our center, and our destiny. Our work on earth is to explore, enjoy and share this goodness. Too much of a good thing, Mae West said. Is wonderful.” Sound theology.”

One of Carl’s two chosen respondents was a longtime friend and UU colleague and iconoclast humanist, Deane Starr. Deane disagreed with Carl’s statements in his essay, but in closing Deane led the group in a spontaneous singing of the hymn “In the Garden” with the words And he walks with me and He talks with me and He tells me I am his own.” Deane had grown up fundamentalist and he had picked that song part in tribute to Carl’s theology and part, as he was soon retiring, to bring his own life full circle.

A few days later Deane called Carl and said did you notice how many of the UU ministers that were the audience were crying as they sang the hymn. He said he found out that earlier in the day, while he and Carl were in their rooms busy working on what they would say, Tex Sample was addressing the other UU ministers. He was telling them about how he, a liberal Christian, looked down on fundamentalists and used to make fun of their ways of talking and singing and in his presentations would mock sing that hymn, In the Garden. Until one day a woman came up to him afterwards and said “I want to tell you something about that hymn. From the time I was about ten years old until I was about fourteen, my father raped me almost every day of my life. After he was finished I’d put my clothes on, and I’d go out into the backyard, and I’d walk slowly about the yard and I’d sing that hymn. It was the only thing that kept me sane, the only thing that kept me from killing myself. Because when I sang that hymn, I knew I was somebody. I hope you’ll remember that the next time you sing it.”

And Carl, hearing that, soon after wrote this: (I read from the UUCF publication; If you don't have this you should get it; the double issue anthology celebrating our 50th year back in 1995 is available for $20 from the UUCF office. But basically it is about how all things work together and revealed the great surmise that at the heart of reality is a good intent, and how in UUism Christians lecture and humanists lead hymns.)

And so it is risky to preach of God and fathers and the “Our Father.” It may bring up all kinds of things in our lives, in our theologies. But may it also, as the closing verse of our own closing hymn is about to say: May it fill us with a living vision, heal our wounds that we may be bound as one beyond division in the struggle to be free. Grant us wisdom (from unfamiliar places), grant us courage (to tell our stories), give us ears to hear and eyes to see, ears to hear and eyes to see.