The Lord’s Prayer – Week Three -Heavenly Minded and Earthly God

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”

Rabbi Hillel the Elder, the great spiritual teacher of Judaism who lived in the century before Jesus, counseled:

If I am not for myself, who will be?

If I am only for myself, what am I?

If not now, when?

Perhaps Jesus was aware of the Hillel’s wisdom as he charted his ministry.  Yes, God cares for each one of us.  The One who notes the fall of the sparrow and numbers the hairs of our head knows our deepest needs and wants to respond in ways that bring wholeness to our lives.  Our prayers for our needs matter to God and help us discern the difference between need and want, world loyalty and self-interest.  Spiritual maturity takes us beyond individualism to sacrificial living for the greater good of our neighbors.

When Jesus says, “thy kingdom come,” he is invoking the prophetic vision of Shalom, the peaceable realm in which everyone has a home, the streets are filled with the laughter of children, and every nation follows the path of justice. Jesus’ mission statement from Luke’s gospel provides a context for the realm of God he imagined.  Following the prophet Isaiah, Jesus proclaimed:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

You notice how earthly Jesus’ vision statement is: it’s about poverty, amnesty for those imprisoned by Rome, healing of physical ailments, liberation from political and relational bondage,  and freedom from various forms of slavery.  And, then it’s about the “year of God’s favor.”  That sounds vague but it meant something to Jesus, Isaiah, and their communities. It was the Jubilee Year, God’s awaited year, the forty-ninth and fiftieth year of the cycle of seven sabbatical years.  On this Jubilee year, the economic order was turned upside down, debts were cancelled and properties returned to their original owners. It was about breaking the cycle of poverty and closing the gap between the rich and the poor.

You notice, there’s nothing about going to heaven in Jesus’ mission statement. It’s about the holy here and now and bringing justice and healing to this good earth.  If we take care of this world, we can trust the next world to God’s hands.

As Martin Luther King asserted in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” there is no separation of body and spirit, earth and heaven, and spirituality and economics in the biblical tradition. Perhaps, King was remembering not only Jesus’ vision statement and the prophets of Israel, but his mentor – and one my mentors- Howard Thurman, who stated that mystic’s encounter with God as a living reality inspires him to confront anything that prevents people from encountering God. The mystic challenges laws and social practices that stunt spirits, destroy dreams, separate families, and plant seeds of despair.

I have to address the question of “God’s will” for a moment.  Many people interpret God’s will as some sort of all-determining power or fate.  They see the will of God as God’s choice in matters of life and death, salvation and damnation, health and illness, victory and defeat.  We hear invocation in “if it’s God’s will, I will survive the operation” or “God chose my candidate as president,” or “it was God’s will that the plane went down, killing hundreds, while I had a flat tire and missed my flight.” I don’t believe that this what Jesus meant. Although God is present in every moment of our lives as the source of inspiration, possibility, and energy to live our dreams, “God’s will” – here in the Lord’s prayer – is about “God’s vision,” “God’s hope,” and not some inscrutable working out of divine destiny or fate.

New Testament theologian John Dominic Crossan claims that when we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we are saying we want to bring the values of heaven to our daily lives and our nation’s priorities. This is an aspirational prayer in which we ask to be “heavenly minded and earthly good,” embodying by our lives God’s heavenly dream.

Over a hundred years ago congregationalist pastor  Charles Sheldon wrote the social gospel classic In His Steps, which charts the lives of a group of persons who covenant to ask “What would Jesus do?” whenever they are confronted with a decision.  Asking that question changed their lives – they now looked at earthly decisions from a heavenly perspective.  Business was not just business; it was about “good work” and care for laborers. Relationships were not just about fun – although fun is good – but service and affirmation.  Government was not just about staying in power but about seeking justice and serving the least of these.  In other words, bringing heaven to earth – in Sheldon’s time, it was about preventing alcohol addiction, confronting poverty, and supporting worker’s rights.  Today, it is about protecting the environment, enacting policies that protect children, ensuring the well-being of the vulnerable, responding to homelessness and addiction, and making decisions that unite rather than divide. It is appropriate when we pray, “thy will be done” to ask “What is God’s will for me to do, with my freedom, in this situation? What is God’s will for our church in our decision-making?  What is God’s will for national and public policy?” The answers aren’t always easy and we may have to compromise, but God is always guiding us.

Today, as we participate in Pam’s ordination, we are making a decision to be a certain kind a certain kind of church – the outlines are broad and there are many right answers, but they all revolve around following Jesus in the complexity of daily life and civic involvement – they all involve caring for the vulnerable, compassion for those who are different from us, welcome to those who have been forgotten or ostracized, choosing love over fear and bridges over walls as we seek to live our prayers – “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”