02 March 2006

Ash Wednesday Sermon

The Identity of God
Ash Wednesday – March 1, 2006
Exodus 3:6-7; Psalm 51; Matthew 6:1-13
Text: “Our Father, which art in heaven.”

There is a scene in the book of Acts of the Apostle Paul in Athens. He walks to the public square and makes the argument for the God of Christianity using the present raw religious materials of the Greeks. Today as Christians we continue Paul’s method with our own apologetics, arguments for the Christian way.

We cannot, however, begin our argument for God with a claim of exclusivity.
We cannot make our claim that our God is the only god, the best god.
We cannot argue that only we hold the keys to salvation.

These statements will not win souls or convert souls. When faced with this reality many folk throw their hands in the air and say what in the hell are we supposed to do then? If all is relative, if all is shaky without a firm foundation, if there is no divine assurance why and how can we make it?

Relativism has greatly rocked the souls of this world of ours. In a retreat to a safer ship, many have flocked to fundamentalists interpretations of religion. You can not blame them. The pace of change in this world is mesmerizing, bewildering and troubling. But closing your eyes in the wake of a storm doesn’t mean you are not going to get wet. The real challenge for us and for Christianity will be to chart a course through the waters of our time leaving behind and going beyond the fundamentalism of our right and relativism of our left.

As we embark on this journey we first ask what is it about Christianity, the particular expressions of God in Jesus Christ that are at the same time so special and so common.

The prayer that we repeat every week, the Lord’s prayer, isn’t a novel, original or first edition order of words invented by Jesus or the early church. Just the opposite is true, the form, order and contents are all modeled after ancient Jewish prayers and wisdom sayings.

The peculiarity and particularity of the Lord’s prayer and its edge lies in where and how this prayer is to be done: in your room, behind doors and in secret. Prayer, the natural language between the creator and the created, is so secret and covert that the left hand doesn’t even know what the right hand is doing.

We begin this clandestine prayer with the simple phrase “Our Father which art in heaven.” Again nothing new or distinctive here. All over the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean world religious folk lifted up prayers to gods they knew as Father. Father Zeus, the literal progenitor of the Greek gods. All cultures referred to their gods as paternal deities who literally birthed and created them.

The peculiarity and particularity of the Lord’s Prayer and its edge lies to whom the Father is. The God Jesus addressed as “Father” is not “Father” by sexual procreation; YHWH God did not literally birth Israel. The Father of Israel was an adoptive father, who adopted Israel while they were in Egypt dying in slavery and oppression:

“I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, enslaved by the Egyptians, and I am mindful of my covenant. Therefore, say to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord, I shall free you from your labors in Egypt and deliver you from slavery. I shall rescue you with outstretched arm and with mighty act of judgment. I shall adopt you as my people, and I shall be your God.’”
(Exodus 6:5-7a)

But what about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the lower case fathers of Israel? In the Exodus passage God makes a bold break with history and comfortableness of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob by superceding their narratives and adopting Israel herself. It is this God whom Jesus addressed as Our Father, the father who adopted and liberated Egypt. The God who hears our groans, executes justice and creates new life.

We cannot rely on the parents of our faith, neither Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Miriam, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Mary, Paul, Iraeneus, St. Francis, Roger Williams, and so on. You want to rely on the promise of history, family names, traditions? That was the exact stance of the Sadducees when they came to John to be baptized. “Do not presume to say to yourselves , ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (Matthew 3:9)

The Our Father, Abba, was a peculiar and particular God, with a peculiar and particular relationship with creation.

We are not only encouraged to know this God but to also be freed, freed to love this God with our whole heart, mind and body. We cultivate this love not in a competitive or posturing atmosphere on the street but behind closed doors and in secret. We talk with this God and develop a personal relationship with this God not by heaping up empty phrases but with honest and heart felt words.

Our personal relationship with God does come attached with the promise of wealth, fame and fortune; there are no prescriptions for happiness or even well-being. There is the promise of a new human family that is going to seek God’s will, that is not going exploit or hoard goods, that is going to practice forgiveness and hope with all hope that when they are tempted they do not fail.

That is what the Lord’s Prayer has to offer friends, family members, neighbors, co-workers, strangers, and loved ones; a new way of loving God and others.

Our cupboards, refrigerators and lazy-susans are full of food way beyond our daily bread. We have no need of material goods. We have needs, desperate needs of spiritual sustenance and vitality. We offer therefore, the gifts expressed in the Lord’s Prayer: Our Father, a God you talk to, in secret for the betterment of your soul and this world. A way of life based on liberation and love. A way of life revolving around forgiveness and God’s kingdom.

These are uncharted waters for us to navigate. We cannot slip in empty phrases, drop anchor on fundamental truths or simply let the wind direct our sails. We are charting an intentional course that will lead to a deeper, more truer and more authentic existence.

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