Theme: The Lord’s Prayer
Meditation title: Speaking Christian; Speaking Downton
7th Sunday after Epiphany; February 23, 2014
For First Mennonite Church of Denver
©Vernon K. Rempel, 2014
Bible reading: Matthew 6:9-13
Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
Do you love Downton Abbey?
I love that show.
I didn’t think I would love a costume drama
set in the early 1900s.
But it has three great story elements
and I would argue that they flow in this order:
and Amazing dialogue
Amazing. I want to take a course in how to speak Downton.
The speech and conversational patterns
are elegant and lovely.
Marcus Borg in his book Speaking Christian,
is, I think, trying to get some of this back
for our Christian words as well.
In his final chapter, he writes this:
“…If we avoid the language of our faith because of uncertainty about what it means, we grant a monopoly on it to those who are most certain about its meaning. That would be unfortunate, for the language is extraordinarily rich, wise, and transformative.” (p234)
Rich, wise, transformative.
Like listening to the dialogue on Downton Abbey!
Today, we will look at the example of the Lord’s Prayer
rich, wise, transformative language.
But consider also these examples of elegant speech
from Downton Abbey. I can’t hope to fully convey
the import of the dialogue, without the background
of the characters, and without the brilliant actors
speaking the lines.
But perhaps you’ll have the gist.
So we have the lady’s maid Phyllis Baxter and footman Joseph Molesley…
Molesley: I thought I’d make some coffee, would you like a cup?
Baxter: No thank you.
Molesley: It’s just a cup of coffee, you won’t have to surrender any of your independence.
And on Daisy becoming engaged to William, who is off to World War I…
Mrs. Patmore: It’s too late for second thoughts now, Missy. You don’t have to marry him when it comes to it, but you can’t let him go to war with a broken heart, or he won’t come back.
Daisy: But I don’t know what to say…
Mrs. Patmore: You don’t have to be Shakespeare, just say nice things….
And finally Daisy and Alfred the footman figure out how to part as friends after considerable awkwardness and missed cues and bad feelings:
Daisy: I thought I’d missed you.
Alfred: I’m off to the station now, Daisy. And I won’t be back. My dad’s gone and my mother’s moving [away]…. so I’m glad you’re hear to say goodbye. I really am.
Daisy: I’ve brought you a present. Mr. Mason’s made you a basket full of things. Rolls and cheese and ham, and jams and pickles and he’s put some cider in too to keep you going on the train home.
Carson: That was kind of him, Daisy. Are you sure it wasn’t meant for you.
Daisy: No, he did it for Alfred. (To Alfred) I told him we were old friends, so he did it for you.
(Walk into hall for more private conversation)
Alfred: You know Ivy turned me down?
Daisy: I do, yes.
Alfred: It seems I’ve been a bit blind where she’s concerned.
Daisy: Love is blind.
Alfred: Maybe. But I wonder now I’ve not been a fool. You’ve always been so good to me, Daisy. So true. But I could never see it.
Daisy: That’s kind of you to say and good to hear. I loved you, Alfred. I’ll not deny it. But that’s done with now, and what I felt won’t come back. It’s time for you to go your way and me to go mine.
Alfred: But you wish me well?
Daisy: Oh, I do, Alfred, yeah. So well. So very well. Friends forever.
Alfred: Friends forever, Daisy. Right, now this really is goodbye.
(Alfred leaves and motherly Mrs. Hughes and gruff Mrs. Patmore walk over)
Mrs. Hughes: Are you all right, Daisy?
Daisy: I’ll just get this off and pop in the pantry for my apron.
(She walks off, and Mrs. Hughes nods to Mrs. Patmore. Daisy steps outside the kitchen, and Mrs. Patmore comes after her.)
Daisy: Well, that’s that then.
Mrs. Patmore: Do you know when you brought up that basket, I were so proud of you, I felt like crying out. If you were my own daughter, I couldn’t be prouder than I am now.
(And with a little breath, Mrs. Patmore touches Daisy’s shoulder and walks off.)
That’s so much more of a break-up scene than George on Seinfeld being given the line “It’s not you, it’s me” from a woman, and being offended because that’s supposed to be his line.
Seinfeld is brilliantly funny. But Downton Abbey is elegant.
Not because of the old class divisions.
Those are falling slowly away.
But because of speech that says what needs to be said,
says it in a way that lets the speaker speak their heart
but at the same time care enough
for the feelings of the other.
The verbal negotiation becomes a careful
and ultimately loving dance of mutual
respect and recognition.
Speaking Christian: The Lord’s Prayer
Speaking Christian & Speaking Downton
In both cases, speaking well to each other
enables people to do greater things with their lives
because of good and capable speaking.
Good speech allows us to do
greater things in relationship.
Allows us to walk in more wholehearted and graceful
relationships in our faith community.
We need Christian words that allow us
to do these greater things in relationship.
This is what Borg is working on
in his book Speaking Christian.
Or in the words of the book of Hebrews:
To untie us from “every weight and the sin that clings so closely”, to untie us from that constricting stuff that blocks our capacity, so that we can, again in the words of Hebrews “run with perseverance the race that is set before us… for the sake of … joy….” (Hebrews 12: 1,2)
And so it may be with the what Protestants call
“The Lord’s Prayer”
and Catholics call the “Our Father.”
The Lord’s Prayer potentially offers us great poetry
arising from within the heart of Christian history,
and rich with generative Christian metaphor.
We have here a suggestive prayer
that carries within it forgiveness, liberation, and transformation
protection, equitable distributive justice.
Borg asks us to notice first of all what is not in this prayer:
It’s not about the afterlife – no plea to go to heaven
Not about material success – no prosperity prayer
It’s not about belief – there’s no request
to help us believe rightly
It’s not even about Jesus – nothing about believing
only in him and him dying on the cross
for our sins
Then Borg asks us to notice what is in the prayer:
And he notes that we need to remember
that Jesus mostly spoke to the peasant class
of his day:
It starts with a sense of deep spiritual intimacy
“Our father who art in heaven”
In the context, was like speaking
to a dear parent or loved one.
I personally like to use the phrase
“Dear One” or even “Our dear Spirit of God” in prayer
Spiritual intimacy for the socially disenfranchised.
Hallowed be thy name
Or as we used to joke “Howard be thy name.”
But it means Holy be your name
As Borg notes, this means for God’s name to be holy
in the earth, for this to be a holy house,
a city in the Spirit of God
full of God’s passion for distributive justice,
for joyful peace, for communities
of laughter and love.
On earth as it is in heaven:
As John Dominic Crossan puts it: Heaven’s in great shape; earth is where the problems are.
Again, the focus is on earth, on this life,
no just in getting saved for heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread:
for a peasant, a request for food in time of real need,
a request for justice, for some of God’s bread
which is intended for all people
Forgive us our debts
- likely the earliest reading –
peasants need debt forgiveness
God does not intend that anyone be
enslaved by economic misfortune
And if it is forgiveness more broadly
it is the daily goodness of letting things
pass so we don’t get bound up
and it is the great work of things like
South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission,
deep and political and spiritual work of forgiveness.
And deliver us from evil,
from the power of evil in our lives:
our addictions, old habits, falsehoods,
everything that separates us from each other
and the from great love of God in our lives.
And this latter is really the thing:
Great Christian words, like the words in this prayer
have the capacity to open our hearts
and to increase our capacity for love,
which is the joy and creativity and passion
of lives well-lived
lives lived with all the elegance and grace
and joyful careful work of Downton Abbey characters.
These good words can open us up to something great and new
and wonderful in our Christian speech.
We can get untied from old burdens.
And when we get untied from some of that old weight,
even just a little,
we will find capacity blossoming in our hearts
An increase in love
In 1st Thessalonians 3:12 Paul writes
“And may the Spirit of God make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all….”
And in 2nd Thessalonians 1:3, Paul is pleased to write the most wonderful of notes:
“We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because you faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.”
That’s what it’s about,
an increase in love,
an increase in capacity of love
an increase in great speech
“Speaking Christian” in such a way that we honor each other,
respect each other, care wonderfully for each other,
so that we become great-hearted,
so that as Paul writes:
“the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.”
And all in the infinitely beautiful and powerful
and loving presence of the Holy Spirit
who is poured into our hearts,
our lives, and our relationships
daily and in every step we take.
What Borg calls “heaven-hell” Christianity
talks a lot about conversion,
but it is a lot about conformity
to a set of necessary beliefs,
in order to get into heaven.
But I think there’s conversion
for what Borg calls “transformation-goodness” Christianity
And it is this conversion to Paul’s “increase in love”
And the conversion is not about what we need to do
and about feeling guilty for not doing enough.
It is about discovering new capacity in our hearts.
And that’s a wonderful thing.
To find that where we felt limits before,
now there is new courage, a new grace,
a new generosity of spirit,
a surprisingly capacious
envelope of love
around our hearts.
That’s a conversion I can sign up for
It’s a conversion I’ve experienced.
It makes all the difference.
Thanks be to God!
As we pray in our New Zealand version
of the Lord’s Prayer:
The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom
sustain our hope and come on earth.