Each day in my devotions from the Daily Office, I pray the Lord’s Prayer. In the Roman Catholic Church and in many Protestant churches, the Lord’s Prayer is part of every worship service. Most worshipers recite it by heart. (Except, perhaps, if you’re the one leading the prayer, since only then are you most likely mess up. I speak from experience.)
Since it’s so familiar to us, we often turn to the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray when we find ourselves in moments when we cannot think of anything else to pray. The words flow like water. But in their familiarity, the words can sometimes lose their powerful nature.
What if there’s more?
“If we see God’s kingdom coming, and God’s will being done as encapsulated by the Sermon on the Mount, it doesn’t look like the world in which we now live.”
“Thy kingdom come; thy will be done” is a phrase I’ve recited countless times, but seldom given much thought. Here in the 21st-century democratic republic that is the United States, the phrase can seem stale, meaningless, relegated to a bygone era.
It’s helpful for me to remember that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew placed the Lord’s Prayer in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ most famous sermon.
The same sermon that tells us to love our enemies and pray for them.
The sermon that favors those who grieve and those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be comforted.
The sermon that repeats what the Old Testament has taught us: that we should treat others as we would want to be treated.
And the Lord’s Prayer has us asking for only enough to get us through today: “Give us this day our daily bread.”
If we see God’s kingdom coming and God’s will being done, as encapsulated by the Sermon on the Mount, it doesn’t look like the world in which we now live. It looks like a world turning upside down with new patterns, new values, new behaviors.
Do we want the kingdom to come? Do we want God’s will to be done? Are we willing to change? Do we want the world to turn upside down?
I’m reminded of the musical “Hamilton” written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. His song “Yorktown,” which chronicles the last battle of the American Revolution, could have been titled “The World Turned Upside Down.”
Miranda describes the risks the revolutionaries had to take in declaring their independence. The lyrics, written from the perspective of Alexander Hamilton at the end of the battle, include these lines:
Black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom.
We negotiate the terms of surrender.
I see George Washington smile.
We escort their men out of Yorktown.
They stagger home single file.
Tens of thousands of people flood the streets.
There are screams and church bells ringing.
And as our fallen foes retreat
I hear the drinking song they’re singing
The world turned upside down.
The world turned upside down for the birth of the United States of America. The colonists were happy at the world turning upside down. The British felt differently.
Furthermore, as Miranda – and U.S. history – remind us, freedom was “not yet” for many people.
Where do we see the “not yet” in our own day?
Less than 100 years after the Battle of Yorktown, in 1854, the desire to turn the world upside down once again came into play. Anti-slavery advocates were angry about the arrest of a freed black man named Anthony Burns without cause. The Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society held a rally on July 4 to raise awareness for Burns’ plight. Churches were encouraged to participate by ringing church bells and preaching sermons, and citizens were urged to express their disappointment that justice was not served to Burns. Instead of celebration, this July Fourth was considered a day of mourning.
“Though he remained committed to turning the world upside down,” William Lloyd Garrison, an anti-slavery advocate, on that day “wondered if the nation would ever recognize a common humanity,” wrote Margaret Washington in her 2009 book, Sojourner Truth’s America. Garrison questioned whether U.S. laws and documents had any meaning if the world were to turn upside down. Did the Declaration of Independence mean anything for enslaved people? Was it a valid document?
Later that day, Sojourner Truth rose to speak. In her ministry, Truth tirelessly advocated for women’s right to vote, abolition of slavery and other changes. She described what the kingdom coming might look like in light of God’s loving justice. She dared to claim that “the promises of Scripture were all for the Black people” and God’s kingdom would be “where slaveholders do not come, and where bloodhounds cannot enter.”
As Americans prepare to commemorate Independence Day 2020 on July 4, perhaps we should consider anew whether all people are truly valued as “created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And if not, how might the Sermon on the Mount, which includes the Lord’s Prayer, guide us to making these noble words a reality?
Considering our country’s flawed and broken history, which includes the failure to love our neighbors as ourselves, may we as followers of Jesus continue his hopeful prayer:
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done.