“To whom do we pray?” 09/21/2014 by Rev. Stacy Swain (Click on title for audio)

Exodus 3: 13–17 and Matthew 20:1-16

You know how it is that when something becomes so familiar, that you stop really seeing it anymore?

It happens to me a lot on my commute here to church. I get into my car and it just somehow knows where go. So much so that my mind is freed up to go wherever it may wish. Which usually is into the weeds of worry about this or that. But sometimes it goes into day dreams of what life would be like if I were perhaps, a world renown painter living in Paris at the turn of the 1800s, or I were suddenly casted into a Broadway production of Les Mis!

And then I am always somewhat startled, when I pull up into the parking space out front of the church to realize that I have very little recollection how I got there. The ride out Route 9, with a right on Woodward Ave. has been come so familiar, that I don’t pay any attention to it, any more.


This fall we are setting out in a sermon series on Prayer and on the Lord’s Prayer specifically, because I wonder if the Lord’s Prayer has not become a bit like my commute. Have these words that we speak over and over each Sunday, become so familiar that we have ceased to really hear what they have to say? Have we ceased to see that to which they point?

What I hope we will do over these next few weeks is slow down a bit, and savor line for line these remarkable words that Jesus has given us to speak.

But before we go any further, let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

So Let us take up those words we know so well as if we are hearing them again for the first time.

“Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”

“Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Before we even make it through the first line many of us may already feel a bit tripped up. For right away, we must ask ourselves, “to whom do are we praying.” “Who is this one we call Father?” “To whom do we pray?”

Recognizing that ultimately “Who or what God is” is a question we can never fully answer, and recognizing that it is a question that has led too many times to the violent pitting of one belief against another — perhaps it is a question we should give up on answering all together.

Perhaps we should listen to Leonardo Boff, Brazilian theologian and writer, and Professor Emeritus of Ethics, Philosophy of Religion and Ecology at the Rio de Janeiro State University who once said that the only thing we should say when we start talking about God is nothing.


Though he may be right, his instructive is not helpful. We need to talk about God. As people of faith we have a need, a yearning to know God. Our need to address God is what makes a church different from a social club or a mission based non profit activist organization. What makes us a church is that somehow, we trust that God is in the mix.

The great commandment is that we love God with all our hearts minds and strength. How are we to do that if we are unsure as to who or what God is?


My heart really goes out to Moses this morning. In the Scripture passage from the book of Exodus, Moses has turned aside to gaze at the marvel of a bush that burns but is not consumed. But the marvels just start there for he is next instructed by a voice that seems to come from that very bush, to take off his sandels for he is standing on Holy Ground. And then, if that is not enough the voices tells him that he — stuttering, and on the lam as he may be — he, Moses is to be the one to set God’s people free from the tyranny of Pharaoh.

Moses thinks that the voice must have surely gotten it wrong, that this must be a case of mistaken identity, but the voice insists and so Moses, knowing that no one is going to believe him, when he delivers the message that he is being commanded to deliver, gathers all his nerve and says “If I come to the Isralites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?” Or in other words, “who are you God?

And the reply? “I am who I am.”

I wonder how Moses felt about that answer? “I am who I am: is more a declaration of being not a description of what that being is like. But it seems “I am who I am” was enough for the Hebrew people, for you know how the Exodus story unfolds. But I dare say that “I AM WHO I Am” may not be quite enough for most of us today in time of skepticism and scientific inquiry. If, in response to a question “who is God?” I were to reply “God is”, and leave it at that, many of us if not most would find that rather disappointing if not down right annoying.

And so the question remains? Who is God? To whom do we pray?

I cannot resist telling a story my mother – in – law, Audrey told me. Once, when she was teaching Sunday school, a first grader named Harold came bursting into the classroom having just left the sanctuary with the rest of the kids. With over the top enthusiasm, he said to her, “I have the same name as God!” It took her bit to untangle his reasoning, but it turned out that when the Lord’s Prayer was prayed he heard, “Our Father, who art in heaven, Harold be thy name.” God’s name is Harold! He thought. Just like his! How cool is that!

But truly, how are we to know who is God, the one to whom we pray?

We pray to “Our Father.” But, Elizabeth Johnson, a professor of theology at Fordham University writes in her book entitled She Who Is, says “we have forgotten what was clear to early Christian thinkers, namely, that the Father and the Son are names that designate relationships rather than an essence in itself..”[1]

What Professor Johnson lifts up is that over time, without us perhaps realizing it, we have come ascribe the identity of Father to God instead of realizing that fatherhood is quality of God. Why is that important? She contends that by doing so we are making an idol of God, confining God in an image and identity that we have created instead, instead of using fatherhood as an icon through which we may be able to glimpse something of the qualities of God.

And this has not just personal consequences in our own faith lives, but also public consequences in our social and political lives together. Again from Professor Johnson “The symbol of God does not passively float in the air but functions in social and personal life to sustain or critique certain structures, values, and ways of acting. [Religions have the power] to structure the world. Since the symbol of God is the focal point of the whole religious system, and entire world order and world view are wrapped up with its character.”[2]

She contents, and I too believe, that when the image that is conjured up when we pray is that figure on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, a white man with a long beard bestowing life to a younger version of himself, much of humanity, those who do not look like that image end up praying to a distant God, an Other God, A God whom they certainly are not made in the image of. And worse than that, all of those who are not made in the image of the Sistine Chapel God are denigrated as less than, inferior, other.

So who is God? To whom do we pray? If we are to hear what Jesus has to say in the Scripture according to the Gospel of Matthew this morning, God may be not at all what we expect.

Dissonance is at the heart of the Gospel story this morning. We want to create God in our image. Those who work all day thought they should receive more than those who worked only a few hours if that. Effort should be rewarded. Value should be earned. But Jesus holds up a very different character of God and asks that we be made in that image. And who is this God? What is reflected of God in this story that Jesus tells? That God is not distant and judging but generous and caring going out to find those who no one else has deemed worthy. God who goes out to the tired, weak, sick, lame, the poor. God not just of the privileged but so very much God of the forgotten and overlooked.

Jesus tells the disciples that we are to pray, “Our father, who are in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”

We pray to “Our” God, a God of all, not of one.

We pray to Father, “Abba” a word not to describe gender but to describe intimacy, tenderness, what it is to be known. A word a nursing child may speak if she could speak to the mother that held her.

We pray to One “Who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name” a God of the cosmos, full of the mystery that was before what is and also wholly a part of what was birthed on the dawn of creation, of that big bang so long ago and is what is being birthed even now.

But the question, remains. And it is a most pressing question that only you can answer. “To whom do you pray?” Prayer may be central to our life of faith. It may very well be as near and dear to us as breathing out and breathing in. But if we do not know to whom we pray it is all theory, intellect, abstraction without the power to do what prayer can do and that is to affect our very life. And so I invite you to take some time this week to consider “To whom do you pray?” Amen.


[1] Elizabeth Johnson “She Who Is” ( The Crossroad Publishing Company: New York , 2005) p. 34

[2] Ibid 3