University Congregational Church
June 17, 2018
“The Prayer Wheel – Deliver Us from Evil”
Judith Viorst wrote a great children’s book series called “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”. I love this title and the thoughts in the book mostly because we can all relate…
You get up on the wrong side of the bed
Put shaving cream on your toothbrush
Get a speeding ticket on your way to work
Have an argument with a co-worker
Run behind all day
Finally get home only to find that your favorite TV show is pre-empted by a political scandal
Stub your toe on the coffee table
And fall into bed exhausted having accomplished nothing all day!
It’s a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
Some days are like that. The Lord’s Prayer doesn’t define evil, (and even these things don’t really qualify as pure evil), but we already know what it looks and feels like.
Immigrant children being torn from the arms of their parents
Terrorist tortures and bombings
Abject poverty suffered by hundreds of thousands in a prosperous nation
Bullying that is so devastating that it leads to suicide, even in grade school
Prejudice and racism so deeply ingrained in culture that some refuse to acknowledge it exists
The making of and addiction to drugs and how it destroys life over and over again
This is worse than a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. It is evil. Pure evil. Most of you know that this is not my favorite topic and that I don’t preach about sin, evil, or apocalyptic death and destruction often – or ever. But here we are at the last petition in the Lord’s Prayer and there it is… “deliver us from evil”.
Here we are praying not only for delivery – but for rescue from all that is evil. We want rescue in our lives. It might not seem this way at first, but think for a moment about popular culture. For at least the better part of the past hundred years, we have lifted up stories of heroes, from the Shadow and the Lone Ranger to Superman and Batman…heroes and superheroes who rescue people – even planets – from peril. Maybe sometimes you’d like to be the hero, saving the day for the people around you, taking a stand against the forces of evil and the legion of doom that threatens to overwhelm our world. We want rescue in our lives – not just in fiction, but in reality: how many of us have ever been in a situation where we find ourselves longing to be rescued?
When we pray for deliverance, we are not asking for a superhero rescue by God. I want to say something here that I think it very important for progressive thinkers. Prayer is a particular kind of language. Just as each of us has unique ways of communicating with our family members and close friends – prayer is a special way of communicating with God.
• When we pray for “bread”, we are not informing God of a need or trying to persuade a reluctant deity of supply it. We are acknowledging our need and our dependence on sustenance in order to live.
• Prayer language is not a logical language, just as our conversation with close family isn’t always logical. So when we pray, we aren’t informing God or changing God, or confessing to God. We are expressing our deepest needs and thoughts.
When we talk to a close friend, we can pick up a conversation where we left off. They already know us and our particular thoughts. We can complain to them about something and they already know we aren’t asking them to do anything about it – they know we are just venting.
I called our oldest son a few weeks back and told him about a stressor in our lives. I knew he would have just the right response; and he did. He listened and then expressed his concern about the stress. But very quickly, he made a joke. This all took place in a few moments. That’s because we have a history and a relationship. He knew I wasn’t asking for him to intervene. And he knew he couldn’t change the stress – but he also knew that his sense of humor would be appreciated.
This is how prayer language works. Prayer is not at all like the words we use when we apply for a job or when we are speaking to a crowd or when we are reading a good book. Prayer language isn’t even about theology. It is about relationship.
When we are praying “deliver us from evil”, we are expressing our deepest distress about the evil we see around us. This prayer is not only for us, but for our society.
Deliver us… deliver the children who are separated from their families…
Deliver us… deliver those teenagers who are bullying and bullied…
Deliver us… deliver those who are living in terror and unrelenting fear…
Deliver us… deliver those living in the unending cycle of addiction…
This final petition in the Lord’s Prayer is a climax to all the other petitions…
Your kingdom come
Your will be done
Give us this day, bread
Forgive us as we forgive
Lead us not into temptation
Deliver us from evil
It underscores our relationship with God – it is not like a letter to Santa or a request for things. It is an expression of the deepest desires of our hearts.
At the risk of trivializing this, I want to tell you about a pact that my girlfriends and I have. We’ve been friends for decades and we have seen each other through all kinds of life issues – death of family, heartache over our children’s choices, delight about the good things of life, challenges of jobs, and the changes of our bodies. So, we trust one another at a deep level. That trust is built over years and experiences. I know these women will be there for me no matter what. So, we occasionally talk about our pact. It’s a given that life will happen to us – the good and the bad – and that nothing will likely change that. But the pact is that we won’t allow one another to make preventable errors while life is happening. For example…
• We promise that we will tell one another if we are growing those awful coarse white hairs on our chins.
• We promise that we tell one another if one of us becomes too negative or uptight or bitchy.
• We promise that we will spring each other from the nursing home for a lunch date in our old age.
• We promise to listen caringly and with forgiveness and to never break trust.
• We promise to tell one another straight out if one of us wears hideous clothing that we should not don in public.
They won’t be able to prevent me from getting cancer or from the death of a loved one. But they will rescue me from going through those things alone or suffering more than I might otherwise. And that’s what it means to pray “deliver me from evil”.
Twenty sermons could be preached about the next rung of our prayer wheel this week. The phrase is “fear of the Lord”. In various Biblical translations, I substitute the words “reverence” or “awe” or “respect” for “fear”. The point of this phrase is an awareness of God’s total otherness, found in the unimaginable expanse of the universe or the majesty of the sea or in the contemplation of a grain of sand. It is not fear as we interpret fear today. It is being amazed and awe-struck by what is bigger and holier than self. Our traditional word for today gets at this truth:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:8-9
So that intimacy of our prayer language and our relationship with all that is holy leads us to be amazed by what is bigger and brighter than self. Imagine yourself standing at the edge of the ocean. You contemplate the endless sand and sea floor. You try to conceive just how much water there is. You are speechless as you consider the expanse and unknowable things that make up the ocean. You realize how little you understand about the ways of water in the depths of the sea. You realize the vastness and the mystery of the deep and your place in the universe. This experience is like “the fear of the Lord” – it is an acute awareness of something immeasurable.
The next rung of the prayer wheel is the Day of Judgment. Get out of your thinking some actual accounting for your sin when you die. That is – in my thinking at least – a human construct about justice. When faced with something that makes no sense in our minds about how the world should be, we dream of a time when everyone will get what they deserve. And we fantasize about how God will punish all the people who were despicable.
But the idea of judgment can free us from our human compulsion to judge. Jesus taught that the way of God is a great reversal of the ways of humanity. God aims to turn things around. The hurting will stop hurting. The sick will be well. The poor will be blessed. The imprisoned will be freed. The hopeless will jump with joy.
And that’s how it all fits together! This wedge on the prayer wheel is especially for those who face unimaginable tragedy and injustice. Deliver us from evil and let us experience the hope of a new day. Deliver us from the injustices of this world because of our relationship with the Holy – make us blessed when we are too low to imagine a better day. Deliver us from terror and bullying and ugliness. Let us never have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day ever again. Let it be. Amen.
“The Prayer Wheel” by Patton Dodd, Jana Riess, and David Van Biema. Convergent Books. 2018.
“The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary” vol. VII, vol. VIII, Abingdon Press. 2015.
“But Deliver Us From Evil” by Rev. Braun Campbell. August 5, 2007. St. John’s Lutheran Church Alexandria, VA.