July 28, 2019
Good morning! Hearing Trevor so beautifully proclaim this lesson from Genesis, we encounter an amazing scene: Abraham bargaining with God for the souls of the innocent of Sodom and Gomorrah. Imagine, faithful Abraham, called by God to be the father of God’s people, and set apart to be the source of blessing for all the peoples of the earth, is bargaining with God on behalf of the innocents in Sodom and Gomorrah — as we know, there weren’t many.
It is one of the most colorful moments in all of scripture and although it seemed Abraham prevailed, at the end of the day, only Lot (Abraham’s nephew) and his family escaped God’s wrath. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed and we also remember Lot’s wife foolishly looked back and turned into a pillar of salt. And just as a reminder, the primary sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was their lack of hospitality. In the desert, hospitality is the difference between life and death.
But, there is more, for ultimately, in a great reversal and generations later, there is a cosmic denouement — the one truly innocent child of Abraham, Jesus, offered his life as a sacrifice for all humanity. This promise of blessing through Abraham has now reconciled humanity and all creation, and in him, in Christ Jesus, the whole fullness of God dwells forever in all of us.
Here is what we don’t always understand — Jesus, the very heart of the Creator, the second Adam, the promise to Abraham, restored all humanity. The particularity of God in Christ is in us and for us all. For those of us who have entered into this reality through baptism and have been shaped and formed in the very image of the living God, the bargain is complete, the price paid and we are the living reminders that salvation was for us all.
The challenge before us — what is our witness? How would anyone know that we are representatives of the love of God for all humanity? Too often, we hear the word witness and cringe but what makes us cringe is the transactional business of selling Jesus. That has become the contemporary model of delivering a commodity, evangelism has all too often, become a business model for selling Jesus. Now, please hear me, I understand that this is well-intentioned but, I believe it is very misguided.
We are witnesses, meaning we bear the image and likeness of Christ within. We bear the very heart of Christ to the world but that comes in and through the particularity of each of us. The word witness is from the Greek martyras. We are martyrs for the sake of the gospel. We are not purveyors of the commodity of Christianity — we are witnesses of God’s love.
It is manifest in how we live and carry ourselves and interact in the world and that is what deeply matters as Christian people. My fear is that all too often, we Episcopalians have not learned the art of being Christian in the world. And often, the church has not done a good job of equipping us to be living signs of God’s love. Our world is so very transactional that we have forgotten how to live any other way. Everything has become transactional, even Jesus.
Today we find Jesus and the disciples moving toward Jerusalem. They ask him to teach them to pray the way John taught his disciples. But listen to me, this will not be the normal petition to God, an ordinary prayer — Jesus is not giving them the words, he is reorienting them to this new realm, the Kingdom of God. Jesus is not setting up a transactional model to bargain with God.
Anytime we think Jesus is responding in a typical rabbinical fashion, we must be prepared for a surprise. Jesus always turns questions into opportunities to startle and awaken us in new ways. When the disciples ask him to teach them how to pray, he, instead, teaches them how to live. The pattern of the Lord’s Prayer sets up a pattern for our whole life — if we are mindful of what we are saying, and not simply reciting by rote memory, we may discover a secret for living.
This is Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. It is spare, only five statements and unlike Matthew who places it early in his gospel, Luke inserts it later, as things are heating up with the authorities. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem.
Hear it in a version translated by a leading Biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson:
Father, may your name be holy!
May your Kingdom come!
Give to us every day the bread we need!
Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who owes us!
Do not lead us into testing.
Luke begins simply, just father, as in papa, an intimate who is also wholly other and holy. Next, the longing for the reign of God to come and for a father who gives us what we need — not the whole world, not excess, just what we need. A father, who like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, forgives. And a reminder to us to be generous in our forgiveness of others. And finally, a plea to help us live this way so as not to be tested. The very request of Jesus who was tested in the wilderness and who, in the Garden, asked to be spared from testing but at the end, offered everything.
The Lord’s Prayer is not a prayer of transaction but of offering, and it is not a negotiating tactic but a way of life. As we say it together, we remember we are following Jesus on the Way of grace.
So here are a few thoughts about how we practice making an offering instead of being swept up into the transactional world. I first began thinking about these things when I was twenty-four, newly involved as an adult in church. I joined the altar guild and in my initiation to the art of preparing the altar, learned this from my priest: We offer our best to the glory of God — all things to the glory of God. The ironing of linens and polishing of silver, the setting of the table and arranging the flowers — all things to the glory of God. To inhabit that thinking — offering my best to the glory of God — became a mantra and as I grew in grace and understanding, went to seminary and was ordained, those words became a living prayer.
Twenty years later, when we started a children’s choir at Trinity Cathedral, we were very careful to teach the children that they were not performing in church but making their offering to the glory of God. We learned to embrace and celebrate their gifts but did not applaud, and they learned to sing and make a joyful noise, offering their gifts to the glory of God. This thinking infused everything and the need for praise was replaced with the joy of serving, of offering. The benefit of this way of being together was elevated with the blessing of eliminating perfection as a goal. Each Sunday, we gathered and offered our best to the glory of God — sometimes it was spectacular and sometimes it was pretty good and sometimes, crazy things happened and we could just laugh. But all things to the glory of God was our mantra and offering was our charge.
Over the next few months, we will be setting a vision for Grace Church and I want you to know that I am so blessed to be here with you and that I will always offer my best to you and to the glory of God. That is my constant prayer. All things to the glory of God!