Historically, the season of Lent is a time to pause and reflect, and a time to try to live more deeply into our spirituality. For many of us, it is a time to get back to the basics of our faith in order to turn our attention back to God. This year, inspired by that idea of getting back to the basics of faith, I found myself drawn to one of the most universal prayers of Christianity— a prayer that is prayed equally by protestants and catholics, conservatives and liberals, pentecostals, evangelicals and congregationalists. It is a prayer that is repeated by millions of Christians across the globe every single day— The Lord’s Prayer. What better way to get back to basics this Lenten season than to start with one of the greatest prayers ever written?
The first thing I’m going to invite all of us to do as we begin our Lenten series on the Lord’s Prayer is to forget everything you think know about it. For many Christians, the Lord’s prayer is something we learn as children, and therefore, we have a bit of a tendency to take it for granted. We find it to be a comfortable and familiar prayer. We say it every week, and some of us may even say it every day. We find in it nothing too radical or controversial. Nothing to ruffle any feathers or stir up any trouble— it’s just the Lord’s prayer. But as we start our series of reflections on this great prayer, I would invite us to consider the possibility that there may be more going on there than we might initially think.
Theologian Frederick Beuchner writes that we Christians do ourselves a disservice when we say the Lord’s Prayer every week without really thinking— not realizing that the words we are uttering are in fact both bold and radical. Stanley Hauerwas writes that in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus is teaching his disciples to “pray for an end to the kingdoms of this world which are dominated by sin and death, and that therefore, to pray this prayer is to become a part of Jesus’ struggle with the powers of this world.” John Dominic Crossan calls the Lord’s prayer “a radical manifesto— a hymn of hope for all humanity— and a prayer from the heart of Christianity for the conscious of the world.” Not exactly the simple children’s prayer we imagine it to be.
Over the next several weeks, we will be taking a closer look at this prayer, and will hopefully then come out on the other side of Lent with a deeper understanding of this truly extraordinary prayer.
When it comes to understanding the radical nature of this prayer, one needs look no further than what comes immediately after the opening line. Your kingdom come. Your will be done. On earth as it is in heaven. Taken in isolation, we could possibly get away with thinking that this is just a general sort of way to pray for a kind of heaven on earth-- for the world to be a generally better, nicer, and kinder place. But of course we can’t really take them in isolation, because as a matter of fact, Jesus spends quite a lot of time saying a lot of really specific things about what exactly the kingdom of God is like, and therefore what exactly it means when we pray these words— “your kingdom come.”
There are over 30 parables in the gospels where Jesus speaks about the kingdom of God. For example, the kingdom of God is like a manager who pays all his workers the same extravagant wage regardless of experience or hours worked. The kingdom of God is like the parent who forgives their wayward child even when everyone else tells them they shouldn’t. The kingdom of God is like a wedding feast in which the guests of honor are people off the streets— the poor, the lame, the outcasts, and the beggars. The kingdom of God is like the shepherd who risks everything to save one sheep regardless of how little it may be worth at the market. The kingdom of God is like a weed that finds its way into your garden and then takes over everything no matter how hard you try to root it out. The kingdom of God—in other words— is not exactly everyone’s idea of heaven on earth. Especially not for those who benefit most from the divide between the haves and the have nots. The corporate leaders, for example, who put higher profit margins over the health and welfare of their employees. Or the politicians who would prefer to balance the budget on the backs of the poorest and neediest among us. For them, the kingdom of God might not seem like the best idea ever. They are not the ones who would benefit most from this kind of radically equitable world. And so as it turns out, the kingdom of God is a radical, and radically specific, sort of place. And that can start to be a little overwhelming to think about— perhaps even a bit disheartening. Especially if we think about how far our world often seems from this kind of radical equality and grace. The kingdom of God as described by Jesus in his parables seems not only radically different than the competitive and profit driven world that we live in today, it can also seem radically unachievable, and perhaps even hopelessly (and radically) naive. But what if our problem here could be sorted out if we just rethought the whole idea of what it means to live in a kingdom to begin with?
Unfortunately for us, the word kingdom is kind of an outdated word. We don’t live in a kingdom anymore, and haven’t for quite some time. When we think of kingdoms we may conjure images in our minds of castles, thrones and knights in shining armor. We may think about kingdoms as places of conquest— empires built through warfare and brutality. For anyone here who watches Game of Thrones, we know that kingdoms are not necessary very nice places. The bottom line here is we may not have the most favorable view of what constitutes a kingdom. But of course we also know that for Jesus, the word kingdom meant something very different then kingdoms as we might imagine them. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus explains the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world when he says in chapter 17 verse 20: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; but, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you and within you.” John Dominic Crossan explains the difference this way: “You want God’s intervention, but God wants your collaboration. God’s kingdom is here, but only insofar as you accept it, enter it, live it, and thereby establish it.” The point is, as long as we think about kingdoms in the traditional way— as dominions which subsume and consume everything else around them—we are going to look at our world and we are going to be discouraged by how far we fall short of the ideals laid out by Jesus in the gospels. But as Jesus explains, the kingdom of God is not something outside of us or beyond us. It is within and among us. It is found in our relationships with one another and in our relationship of collaboration with God. It is as close as the beating of our hearts and the very air that we breathe.
So what if we could just get rid of that one little word that can be so problematic for us? Or what if we made just the tiniest little change—so tiny that we just removed one letter—and instead of the kingdom of God, we started praying for the kin-dom of God? What if we prayed for the kind of world— and therefore tried to live the kind of lives— in which we see all the world as our kin? You see, the word kinship is inherently opposed to the sorts of values that the word kingdom might elicit in our minds— things like empire, imperialism, or colonialism. Instead, the word kinship implies relationships of mutual care and concern. It implies an almost familial relationship— recognizing that all of us are part of one human family— brothers and sisters in the one household of God. And while we may not be able to bring about a kingdom—that seems a little too big for us, and maybe we don't even want to do that— what we can do, starting right here, right now, before we even leave this building, is bring about deeper kinship with those around us.
What’s more, if we really start to live more deeply into the reality of the kin-dom of God all around us, then maybe all those ideals that Jesus talks about in his parables— equity among all people, radical mercy and grace, the inclusion of all people at God’s table— maybe then those ideals would start to become a more visible and tangible reality among us as well. For indeed, how can we ignore the poor and needy among us if we see each one of them as our kin— as brothers and sisters in the household of God? If we see all of creation as our kin how can we continue to thoughtlessly exploit our planet or be careless about the resources God has given us? If we see the world as our kin how would that change our vision of the world around us and the people around us? Finally, if we were to understand the opening lines of Jesus’ great prayer as a call for greater kinship between us and all creation, might we then start to have a better understanding of how the kin-dom of God is already here-within us and among us— on earth as it is in heaven? Might we start to have a better understanding of all the ways in which it is indeed as close as our relationship with God and our relationships with our neighbors? How it is as close as the very beating of our hearts and the very air that we breathe?
Crossan suggests that when we say the Lord’s prayer every week we are praying a prayer “from the heart of our faith for the conscience of the world— “that we are making a bold and radical statement about the kind of world in which we want to live, the kind of people we want to be, and the kinds of churches we want to build. What if we really believed that to be true? What if that means that each week, when we pray these words, we change ourselves, we change our relationships, and we change the world just a little bit at a time? I pray that it might be so.