When my step-grandmother MaryBeth died, she hadn’t been married to my grandpa for very long. I think it was only ten or twelve years since they’d eloped to Reno. So, there were a lot of people at her memorial service that I didn’t know. My mother and father were there, and my mom’s brothers, and a few cousins—we loved MaryBeth and thought of her as ours. But the majority of those in the church were her friends and relatives and descendants from the period of her first, and far-longer, marriage. Which was just a little awkward.
That awkwardness extended to the service itself. It wasn’t liturgical worship, of the sort we do here. It was one of those kind-of-formless events we’ve all been to where the content depends heavily on the members of the congregation having something to contribute. And most of us aren’t really good at coming up with words that would do justice to the meaning of a human life, or the mystery of its ending, or the experience of remaining behind. So we sat there, feeling the import of the occasion, not really sure whether we were qualified to speak, or what to say.
Until the pastor stood up and led us in the Lord’s Prayer. Then, suddenly, we all knew what words to speak. And during the time that it took to speak them, we were united. As we were praying I looked around and could see that I wasn’t alone in feeling the presence of something greater, something that embraced us as we were in that moment, in our sadness and embarrassment, and yet which open a window through which love, and memory, and hope could come.
The Lord’s Prayer is always there when you need it, when something true and beautiful needs must be said and nothing else is coming through. And it helps that almost everyone knows the words, or close enough to be able to fake it. Maybe that’s why we’re so attached to whichever version of it we know best. Many of the earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke contain words from Matthew that the copyist must have put in because he thought they been left out by accident: “in heaven”…”your will be done on earth”…”but deliver us from evil.”
But there’s no escaping the fact that this prayer has, from the time of writing the New Testament, existed in two different versions. Or that any version of it we might know is just one of many English translations of one of two quite different Greek texts that are themselves translations from Aramaic. So the true power of the prayer does not come from having memorized the right words in the right order. When the disciple asked, “Lord, teach us to pray,” Jesus didn’t begin by saying “repeat after me.” What makes the Lord’s Prayer what it is, is the faith with which it was first spoken. When we say it, we are not speaking the words that Jesus spoke, but we are joining his religion.
The Lord’s Prayer can unite us because it comes from the understanding that we are already One. It begins “Our Father” because we are all one family, all children of one God. It is the prayer of one who us divided by warring empires, and knows that the glory that the empires claim belongs to God alone. It is Jesus’ prayer for a new kind of empire that brings us together, not from the top down, by violence and coercion, but from the inside out, with truth, and justice, and love.
And just in case we think this kingdom is a castle in the air, the Lord’s prayer goes on to ask that the lives that we live now, today, be transformed into outposts of that kingdom. It asks for bread enough for, and to be free from the anxious struggle to get more for tomorrow. It asks for forgiveness, that flows from God in the measure that we ourselves can let go of our resentments and what we think we are owed. It is a prayer for the grace to continually renew our relationships in the knowledge that we are equally imperfect, and equally deserving of respect.
And it is a prayer that knows that to live in this way often comes at a cost. When we give up trying to be proved right, we’re liable to be found wrong. When we drop the pretense of being invulnerable, our vulnerability is there for everyone to see. When we no longer strive to be on the winning side, we run the risk of being counted among the losers. Jesus’ prayer doesn’t romanticize this possibility ending up a victim. It knows that it is real, and asks to be spared.
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are not simply repeating words and phrases that Jesus told us to remember. We are praying with Jesus, carrying on the prayer that he prayed. We are praying that his vision will be our vision, that his hope will be our hope, his mission our mission. And we are praying for his faith that whatever happens, however much it might seem that our prayers are unanswered, our hopes dashed, our cause rejected and lost, God does live, and hears, and knows, and will vindicate what is worthy in us at the last.
On July 8th my daughter Risa and I went to our annual Giants game. The team was limping back into San Francisco after a disastrous road trip which had dealt their hopes to repeat as champions a severe blow. But as the game began I felt the stirrings of hope. Maybe this would be the night when the tide turned, the game in which the unseen powers of baseball would start smiling on San Francisco again. Tim Lincecum was on the mound, and looking like the pitcher he used to be, striking out one New York Met after another. Buster Posey got to the Mets young star pitcher Matt Harvey early, with a two-run shot to center field in the first.
But in the sixth inning the kind of sloppy play in the field that has sunk the team all season led to two Mets runs, and the game went into the eighth tied at 3. And there it stayed for eight more innings. Again and again the Giants got men on base, once they even had them loaded, again and again we stood and clapped and cheered until our voices were hoarse and our hands were sore, and again and again we failed to get the one timely hit that would send us all home victorious, and maybe break the curse that lay over their season.
Risa and I had come to the game on the ferry from Larkspur Landing, so we were stuck there until the final out. And as inning followed inning, and the crowd grew smaller and smaller, and midnight came and went, the final victory began to feel less and less important. When the Mets scored the go-ahead run on a fielding error in 16th inning, and the Giants couldn’t answer, of course I was disappointed. But I was also thankful: thankful, for everybody’s sake that it was finally over; I was thankful for the pluck of my little girl, and for a story she will never forget; thankful to the players of both teams, who had played so hard, for so long; thankful for camaraderie of the other fans who remained to the end; thankful to the couple that gave us their seats on the ferry so Risa could lie down with her head on my lap to go to sleep; thankful that when my wife called my cell after waking up alone in the house at 1:30 in the morning, I could tell her we were on the ferry coming home.
The Giants didn’t win that night, and the ebbing tide of their season didn’t turn. But I had an initiation into something more precious than victory—the mysterious, undying, unconditional love of baseball fans for their team. God didn’t spare Jesus the cross, but he raised Jesus from the dead, and exalted him as Lord of the kingdom that is already here, if we only know how to see. Jesus lives, so we know that Jesus was praying the right prayer, for the right things, in the right way. Jesus lives, so now when we pray his prayer, he prays it with us, not for his sake, but for ours. Jesus lives, and this makes the Lord’s Prayer, and our every prayer--even the abject, inarticulate cry for help--a prayer of thanksgiving.