January 22, 2017 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Isaiah 42: 1-7; Luke 11: 1-4:Matthew 6: 9-10
This morning, Cris read two versions of the Lord’s Prayer. In the first from Luke, the disciples see Jesus praying and ask him to teach them how to pray. In the second reading Jesus gives this same prayer in a bit fuller form as part of his famous Sermon on the Mount. Bible scholars debate whether Matthew and Luke are using the same or different sources, and why each writer put the prayer in different contexts. As a model prayer, it is likely that Jesus used it more than once to give instruction. It would be natural for Him use different words on different occasions, even though the outline and basic content are the same.
When I first was hired as interim pastor of Union Church, just over one year ago, several people were somewhat skeptical about how an ex-Catholic nun could lead their beloved church, and some were understandably anxious. As a result, I received a fair amount of well-intentioned advice. On one occasion Bob Sherman cautioned me, “You have some very big shoes to fill.” He said. “I don’t know how you are going to do it. You probably should ask Jan to help you. She gave the same sermon every week,” he said, “but she found fifty-two ways to say it every year! She’s amazing.” Well, I’m not sure that Jan would agree that she gave the same sermon every week, but she and I are like minded I think in the belief that there are just a few very important Gospel messages and that these are worth reflecting on often and that they take a lifetime to perfect. Primary is loving God, neighbor and self and deepening our understanding of what that entails. And that brings us to “God’s Will”.
Perhaps the most good and the most harm done throughout history has come about as a result of how people have understood God’s will.
For five centuries, from AD 700 to 1200, Islam led the world in power and order in government, in refinement of manners, in standards of living, in humane legislation and religious toleration, in literature, scholarship, science, medicine, and philosophy. Nor were they at that time a threat to the Roman Empire. Despite this, in 1095 Pope Urban II put out a call to arms and ignited the first of eight Crusades against what he labeled the “enemy . . .an accursed race, a race wholly alienated from God” As the Pope sent the army out with “the assurance of the reward of imperishable glory in the kingdom of heaven” for waging war, the crusaders all cried out in unison, “It is the will of God!”
Today, Muslim extremists perform acts of terrorism throughout the world convinced that they are justly fighting in the name of Allah and fulfilling the will of God.
The Puritan settlers in the New World believed that the entire planet was their God-given home and property. They had a strong belief that they were the true followers of God. As a result throughout the sixteenth century to the American Revolution, their goal was to transition the Native Americans from what they saw as “savagery” to “civility.” They believed that it was God’s will to rid the world of the savage, either by conversion or death.
When President Clinton first attempted to develop a national health plan, Pat Robertson spent $1.4-million because he was convinced that this was NOT God’s will.
Many people do not believe in God because of the existence of evil in the world. If there is an almighty and all powerful God, they ask, why does he allow suffering? Either there is no God they determine, or he is a monster if he wills all of the suffering that occurs.
Many people who have experienced heartbreaking tragedy in their lives were wounded over and over again as loved ones, not knowing how to comfort them made such comments as , “Though we can’t understand it, this is God’s will.” When Harold Kushner’s three-year-old son was diagnosed with a degenerative disease that meant the boy would only live until his early teens, he was faced with one of life’s most difficult questions: “Why, God?” Years later, in 1981, Rabbi Kushner wrote a straightforward, elegant contemplation on the doubts and fears that arise when tragedy strikes, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. The book, that dealt with understanding this concept of God’s will sold millions of copies and became an overnight classic.
When Abraham Lincoln was asked if he believed that God was on the union’s side he replied, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” This was his response to the question of God’s Will.
God’s Will has been misunderstood and misused over and over again throughout history. So after praying week after week, perhaps day after day, “Thy Will be Done, how do we find out what is the will of God?
There are two different Greek words which can both be translated into English as WILL. One (boulé) has to do with the unchanging, counsel of God…God’s purposes, if you will, in creation; the order in the universe. But the other word that translators render as “will” (thélema) has the idea of DESIRE or WISH in it, and that is the word that is used in the Lord’s Prayer. We are really dealing with God’s WISHES or the image that is more meaningful to me, God’s VISION here and not ultimate, immutable divine decrees.
In addition, I think that there are two dimensions to knowing God’s will. The first, I’ll call “the big picture” God’s vision for Creation. The second is more specific. What is God asking of me at this moment in time?
How do we find out what God does wish or what God’s vision is for creation? Jesus spent his public life teaching and modeling God’s wishes. When we read and reflect on scripture we gain some knowledge. For example, there are indications that God wishes us to manage creation properly, to be good stewards of that with which we have been entrusted; that God wants us to treat each other well, especially those in society who cannot care for themselves; that God wants us to keep our priorities straight, never getting the idea that we are gods and no longer accountable. The word from Jesus is that Christians are expected to actually love one another, to have an unfailing concern for the welfare of our brothers and sisters. This list could go on and on. The point is that scripture is a great resource for gaining insight about God’s vision. Jesus’ public ministry involved fleshing out that vision in word and action.
The Gospel of Matthew, that has one account of the Lord’s Prayer, was written initially for Jews, Jews who had been looking for hundreds of years for the Seed of Promise, the Messiah, to come, and it’s all about the kingdom of God. Even though the Roman government was firmly in control at the writing of the Matthews’ Gospel they had allowed freedom of religion. This freedom enabled the gospel, including a copy of the gospel of Matthew, to go into most of the known world and this particular gospel appealed to the Diaspora (the Jews dispersed throughout the world) because it gave them the good news that the Messiah had finally come. Their long awaited King had come, although they expected an earthly kingdom to be established immediately. When Jesus teaches the disciples to pray, “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven,” he knew that he was sharing the most difficult thing for any person to do, including himself. Remember the powerful scene near the end of his ministry when in great agony in the garden Jesus cries out, “If this cup can pass, let it pass–but nevertheless let thy will be done.”
The words, “Thy kingdom come…” is a petition that covers two areas: Right relationships in the here and now and our role in bringing that about. The Kingdom of God is the central petition in the Lord’s Prayer. It has a surplus of meaning. Jesus often used everyday symbols to communicate his thinking on this very important concept. In one sense the Kingdom of God is never completely defined in the word of God. It is so rich in meaning that it is hard to reduce it to one sentence. However, that is the beauty and strength of it. It speaks to every age and every stage of life. However, the bottom-line is always an invitation to respond.
Those of us, who took on the study of the parables during Lent last year, learned that they are all about the Kingdom of God. We used Megan McKenna’s book Parables: The Arrows of God which described them as seemingly simple stories that hold multi-faceted views of inner truth and reality. The parables are about justice and mercy. They reveal aspects of the reign of God and challenge us to live in the now of that kingdom. They are prophetic and demanding. They call us to conversion and humility and remind us that we have been given much and that much is being asked in return; that our lives belong to God and that any work in advancing the kingdom not only benefits the whole, through our efforts we also evolve into who we are called to be.
So when we pray “Thy will be done.” Our request is first for a clearer understanding of God’s desire for the entire world. And given that this understanding has evolved throughout history and that much harm has come about by those who were convinced that they held the truth about God’s vision for the order of things, it’s important that we seek clarity with great humility and openness, recognizing that we are on firmer ground when we reflect together and share our insights, since the Spirit is at work in all of us and all who seek with an open heart can know some dimension of God’s vision.
The second aspect of knowing the will of God has to do with the part that we are invited to play in advancing the reign of God. To pray “Thy will be done” and mean it may be difficult. It may mean that we, with some discomfort, will see areas of life where our will is in conflict with God’s will, that we are not being or doing what God would want. As Mark Twain said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.” It may mean that we will have to adjust our thinking and acting from what appears most desirable to what is most right. But we pray it and mean it because we know that God’s will…those wishes God has for you and me…are for our highest and best.
Dr. William Barclay, a distinguished Bible teacher, shared this insight about the Lord’s Prayer: “This is no prayer for the man or woman who wants and desires to stay the way they are.” In Matthew’s gospel, about twenty verses after Jesus instructs his disciples how to pray, we see our Lord further teach that we are to “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.”
How do we do this? I believe that it requires that we be mindful of our best understanding of God’s vision for creation and the values promulgated in the gospels and that we be intentional about our choices. Does this decision advance the reign of God? Does this action support or promote gospel values?
This guidance by itself of living out “Thy Will be done” feels demanding and seems like hard work; burdensome. Many years ago, when I was in my early twenties I had an opportunity to meet with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi for a full afternoon. He was touring the country and spent some time in Poland Springs. I still have a photo of one of my best friends and I dressed in our religious habits sitting on a couch with the Maharishi between us. It was a moving experience to be in the presence and talking with such a spiritual person. I share some of the Maharishi’s wisdom taken from an undated talk. Here as he distinguishes between prayer and meditation I think that he provides valuable guidance for a meaningful life stance in doing the will of God.
When we pray, often there is a subtle desire for something, a hankering to get something or to become something. We may call it aspiration because we are praying to become good, or to have something divine which we do not have, or to be free from fear, jealousy, doubt and so forth. But there is always a subtle tendency on our part to push or pull from within.
Also, there is always the feeling of being-let us use the term ‘a divine beggar’. We feel that God is high above, while we are down below. We see a yawning gulf between His existence and ours. We are looking up at Him and crying to Him, but we do not know when or to what extent God is going to fulfil our prayers. We feel that we are helpless. We just ask, and then we wait for one drop, two drops or three drops of compassion, light or peace to descend upon us. Sometimes there is a feeling of give-and-take. We say, “Lord, I am giving You my prayer, so now You please do something for me. You please help me, save me, fulfil me.”
But in meditation we do not ask God for any help, boon or divine quality; we just enter into the sea of His Reality. At that time God gives us more than we could ever imagine. In prayer we feel that we have nothing and God has everything. In meditation we know that whatever God has, either we also have or we will someday have. We feel that whatever God is, we also are, only we have not yet brought our divinity forward. When we pray, we ask God for what we want. But when we meditate, God showers on us everything that we need. We see and feel that the whole universe is at our disposal. Heaven and earth do not belong to someone else; they are our own reality.
The highest prayer is, “Let Thy Will be done.” This is absolutely the highest reach of prayer, and it is also the beginning of meditation. Where prayer stops its journey, meditation begins. In meditation we say nothing, we think nothing, we want nothing. In the meditation-world the Supreme is acting in and through us for His own fulfilment. The prayer-world is always asking for something. But the meditation-world says, “God is not blind or deaf. He knows what He has to do to fulfil Himself in and through me. So I shall just grow into the highest in soulful silence.
When we look at what drives us as humans, we can see that it is, in general, the pursuit of happiness, of safety. We have a fear of not living a meaningful life. Our mind always is looking for how we may make our situation better, how we may better respond to whatever demands we may be feeling from the world in order to become happier or more comfortable. In order, really, to have the feeling that we are in the right place at the right time doing the right thing, having our right life. . .That. . . is, indeed, the way of life. We are meant to seek happiness and the experience of fulfillment. We are meant to know the joy of living. . . (However). . . the path we are meant to tread toward this experience of fulfillment may be experienced within, there behind all the thoughts and opinions and ideas, in our least-excited state. In that place where we may feel ourselves as at-one-with nature, present to the flow of evolution that always moves through nature, in touch with the force of nature itself, with the Creator. By having this connection and depending upon it, we are shown that there is nothing we need ‘figure out.’ Rather, we recognize that our desires are not our own. They are given us by nature. Why? So that we may know what nature would have us do. And what is it that nature would have us do? Always? Support and serve the evolution of the whole. By following what nature would have us do, we are doing what is best for the whole, for all of nature; but also, we are doing what is best for ourselves. Our own evolution always is served by the evolution of the whole. –Excerpts from the words of the Maharishi.
So again, we are invited to take part in a dance; a dance that involves being open to growing clarity about God’s vision for creation and mindful that our decisions and actions support that vision. And at the same time trusting that the greatest fundamental drive and passion for the human spirit is to know God. If we are open, we will come to know what we need to know –Who we want to know. Let the words that Cris read this morning from Isaiah reassure us. With these words God speaks not only about the coming Messiah, but also to us and about us saying, Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon you; You will bring forth justice to the nations. And, I am the LORD, I have called You in righteousness. I will also hold You by the hand and watch over You.
Our new banner says it well; Be Still and Know that I Am God.
We are invited to go through life with the attitude Let Thy will be done, and here I am to do it.
Simple; and the work of a lifetime.
Marcus Borg describes it this way, “Now I no longer see the Christian life as being primarily about believing…Rather, the Christian life is about entering into a relationship with that to which the Christian tradition points, which may be spoken of as God, the risen living Christ, or the Spirit. And a Christian is one who lives out his or her relationship to God within the framework of the Christian tradition.”
What does all of this mean for me right now? Today and each day I can give myself over to something other than my ideas. I can do what I can to join the flow of life, of evolution, that always is present, which always is available to me. I can surrender myself to the will of this thing that is greater than myself, knowing that by following it, I will be moving in the direction of the true joy of existence that is my birthright.
This balance of remaining aware, being mindful, open to God’s nudges and at the same time relaxing in the realization that this is God’s work, trusting that God will work in and through us if we are willing, is an equilibrium that is much more easily kept as we support each other in community. So once again we acknowledge our gratitude for having this wonderful family we call Union Church. And for a moment, with our hearts full, let us be still, and experience our God.