Introduction to the Theme
The Lord’s Prayer:

  • It appears twice in the Bible, once in Matthew’s gospel, and once in Luke’s. Luke’s version is shorter, and Luke says that Jesus taught it to his disciples after they asked him to teach them how to pray.
  • In Matthew, Jesus shares the prayer with the crowd that’s listening to his Sermon on the Mount. He teaches it to them as part of a much longer lesson about how to be righteous, how to be good people, but also how to be people who discover true happiness.  Because the world teaches us one thing about what it takes to be happy and secure, but Jesus proved that the world has it all wrong—that the happiness and security our souls really want can only be experienced when we’re in a loving relationship with God.  When we practice loving God and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.
  • The version of the Jesus prayer that Matthew wrote down is the one that’s closest to what we learn and say today.
  • When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are praying the same prayer that Jesus did, which helps us to be more like him. And, we’re praying the same prayer that millions of Christians have prayed before us.  It’s the same prayer that the Pilgrims prayed on the Mayflower when they were sailing for America.  It’s the same prayer that Christians in China and Indonesia and Brazil and Nigeria and Romania and France and Italy all pray.  It connects us to people from all over the world, and from history, and into the future.  Isn’t that amazing?
  • [What have you always wondered about The Lord’s Prayer?]

“Going Deeper with the Best-known Prayer”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
15 September, 2019
Third in a Series of Eight Services on “Holy Habits: Prayer”
Matthew 6:5-15
Luke 11:1-13

It’s probably the best-known prayer ever (at least in the Western hemisphere), if you take into account the years it’s been prayed, and the number of languages and countries and places it’s been uttered.  Many times, it’s one of the few things that people whose minds have been ravaged by Alzheimer’s or dementia are able to recite coherently.  In a couple congregations I’ve served, it’s been amazing to hear people say the prayer in their mother-tongue, with multiple versions of it at the same time—a humbling and strengthening reminder that God loves every nation with equal passion; every people and language and culture is precious to Jesus, and each one has God’s attention and devotion as surely as we do.

But for as often as we’ve said it, how much do we know about The Lord’s Prayer—how deeply have we reflected on what we’re saying?  What might The Lord’s Prayer be able to teach us about our other prayers, and how we might pray our own words using the words he suggested as something of a template?

The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples was, according to biblical scholars, original to him—but it was informed by Jewish prayers that he would have learned as a child, including the Kaddish.  The beginning of the Jewish Kaddish says: “May His great name be exalted and sanctified in the world which He created according to His will!  May he establish His kingdom and may His salvation blossom and His anointed be near during your lifetime and during your days and during the lifetimes of all the House of Israel, speedily and very soon!  And say, Amen.

You can hear the echoes especially in the first couple lines, can’t you?  The opening of the Kaddish exalts and hallows God’s name, and then expresses the hope that His kingdom will be established.

Jesus’ prayer opens with the words: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”  The universal prayer (which is to say, prayed throughout the entire world and across time and space) begins with a universal voice, using the plural OUR Father.  Not just my father or your father.  When we pray, we are addressing the God of all, and we offer our prayer recognizing that we are members of a collective body.  Even in Luke’s version, which began only with the word, “Father”, Jesus teaches: “Give us each day our daily bread…” and “forgive us” and “do not bring us not into the time of trial…”  In contrast to a culture that loves to emphasize and privilege the presumed rights of the individual almost above all else, Jesus demonstrated that we belong to something greater than our self, and we pray to One who embraces and hears the prayers of others and of the many as much as our own.

“Our Father,” Jesus teaches us to pray.  We are addressing a personal God.  One who loves and protects us like a good father.  In all of the gospel accounts in their original language, Jesus refers to God as “Abba” which is the Aramaic word for “father”, as opposed to the more common Yahweh, or Almighty, or God.  Many religious scholars think that addressing God with this sort of familial intimacy was a new practice Jesus started.  Today, there are many Christians for whom it is difficult to imagine addressing God in any other way than “Father God” or “Heavenly Father.”

But, as comforting and helpful as that familiar address can be for some people, there are others for whom calling God “Father” throws up an immediate barrier to a relationship, because of abuse or absence they’ve experienced by their earthly father that makes using that title for God difficult.

Of course, Jesus did not mean to be saying that God is literally a father, or that males and fathers are more similar to God than mothers or women are.  In the very first chapter of Genesis verses 26 & 27 we read, “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness… So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  As we’re realizing with growing clarity in this generation that’s more aware and articulate about gender fluidity and personal identity, it is language—the words we use to describe our experience of reality—that so often defines the limits of our experience or understanding, even of God.

Jesus referred to God as Abba/Father.  But,  given the ways he treated women as equally sacred and precious, and the ways he even described God with mothering images, I am confident that if first-century Palestinian culture could have comprehended and coped with it, Jesus would have felt just as comfortable calling God “Mother”.

If you’re someone who thinks the idea of praying to God using feminine imagery or titles is strange or challenging, why not try adding “Mother” for a couple weeks in your daily or regular prayers?  Just see whether praying daily to “Father and Mother God”, or “Heavenly Mother” doesn’t somehow deepen your experience and enlarge your understanding of God in some surprising ways.

What’s most important is that Jesus addressed God in a very personal way with the parental title, even as he acknowledged that God is not entirely like our human parents.  We recognize this significant difference by the reverence we demonstrate when we pray, “hallowed be thy name.”  Something hallowed is sacred, it’s holy.  So, we are acknowledging that God is different and holy, first by addressing “Our Father, who art in heaven” before adding, “hallowed be thy name.”

In another lesson, Jesus taught that the kingdom of heaven is not just a place we look forward to going to after we die, as if there is none of it to be experienced here on earth.  He taught his disciples, “The kingdom of heaven is among you.”[1]  He taught us to say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Heaven is the place from which God exercises divine Rule and, through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, accomplishes divine purposes on earth.[2]  Clearly, Jesus was referring to a spiritual realm and way of being—one that has its purest expression in heaven, but nonetheless has the ability to also be realized in this mundane, material, earthly world when the human will, and hearts and minds make room for it.

After acknowledging God’s holiness and sovereignty, and after asking for God’s heavenly kingdom to come and will to be done here on earth, Jesus teaches us to ask for what we need for our human flourishing: “Give us this day our daily bread.”

In other words, please grant us enough of what we need for today.  Just as the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years learned to trust that God would provide enough manna for each day, Jesus teaches that we should ask for what we need so that we are sufficiently provided for today.  He goes on in his Sermon on the Mount to say more on the subject—telling his followers not to worry about tomorrow, but instead to remain focused on the ways God is providing for us today.

Next, he instructs us to confess—to acknowledge our need for forgiveness and grace, saying: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

Have you ever noticed how we fail to flourish when we fail to forgive others?  The anger and resentment we nurse can consume our spirits, while doing nothing to really transform the wrong done to us.  Jesus understood that human beings need to work at forgiving others.  He also knew that we can’t access the fullness of God’s grace so long as we are unable or unwilling to forgive others.  Because the truth is that God forgives our debts, our sins, our transgressions or trespasses, far more reliably than we forgive those who have done wrong by us.

But there’s often confusion about whether we’re debtors, or trespassers, or sinners, right?  Where did that confusion come from?  Are we debtors or trespassers, or sinners?

As with other sometimes-confusing aspects of Scripture, it can be traced back to translation.  The Bible was first translated into English by John Wycliffe in 1395.  And when he translated The Lord’s Prayer from the original Greek, he used the word that most biblical scholars agree is the most accurate English word, which is debts.  When William Tyndale translated it again in 1526, he chose to use the word “trespass”—and his translation became the version that was used in the first English Book of Common Prayer published in 1549.  So, “trespasses” is what became the ‘official’ version—though the Presbyterian and other Reformed and Nonconformist churches in Britain tended to use the earlier wording that Wycliffe used.  So, that’s why Presbyterians and Congregationalists and other Reformed traditions tend to say “debts” and “debtors”, while Episcopalians, Anglicans, Methodists, and Catholics use “trespasses”. [3]  To add even further confusion, some denominations say, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  Actually, although it may not be the most literal word translation from the Greek, the version using “sins” probably best captures the theological meaning of what Jesus was teaching us to say.

The next line of The Lord’s Prayer makes an appeal that Pope Francis has recently proposed should be translated differently, because of what it suggests about the nature of God.  Jesus’ words have historically been translated to say, “Lead us not into temptation…”  And that, the Pope rather astutely acknowledged, can cause us to infer that God is the source of the very temptations that can trip us up.  But how can that be consistent with a loving God who longs for our flourishing?  And so, the Pope’s revised language is, “Do not abandon us to temptation, but deliver us from evil.”[4]

If you grew up Catholic, or have paid attention when you’ve been in a Roman Catholic church service, you may have noticed that they tend to conclude the prayer with those words—which is where Jesus ended in the oldest manuscripts of Matthew’s gospel.  But, as sometimes happened, in some of the later editions of the Bible—which would have been hand-transcribed, so while additions and omissions were greatly frowned upon, they still sometimes happened—the doxology, or prayer of praise and exaltation of God was added.  “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.”  And, because it provides a fitting ending for disciples who wish to start and end the prayer by acknowledging the sovereignty of God above all, it stuck—even though it doesn’t necessarily appear in most versions of the Bible today.

The final word, of course, is “Amen.”  Which is a Hebrew word meaning certainty, truthfulness, and faithfulness.  It’s also a word that’s used in both the Old and New Testaments to affirm what has been prayed by saying, “So be it”, or “May it be so.”[5]

Jesus was constantly ministering to others with the aim of helping them to experience and understand God’s love more fully; his prayer was a part of that ministry.  And because in the United Church of Christ we believe that God is still speaking, helping us to understand ancient things in new ways, I’ve included several newer versions, translations, or paraphrases of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples.  Just as the communities that Luke and Matthew were writing to learned slightly different versions of the prayer, the essence and spirit of the prayer remained using more or fewer words.  I encourage you to use the green “Takeaway” insert across the week ahead during your daily prayer time—see whether any of the adaptations of the Lord’s Prayer resonate in profound ways for you.  Or, maybe you’ll feel moved to write your own version.

Whatever you decide, I hope that our personal and collective experiences of prayer will continue to deepen and strengthen as we work on this Holy Habit of prayer!  Amen.

The Takeaway, Prayer – Week 3
“Going Deeper with the Best-Known Prayer”
The Lord’s Prayer

THE MESSAGE  (a translation of the Bible by Eugene Petersen, 2002)

Our Father in heaven, Reveal who you are. Set the world right; Do what’s best — As above, so below.  Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. You’re in charge!  You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.

NEW ZEALAND PRAYER BOOK

Eternal Spirit Earth-Maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver, source of all that is and that shall be, Father and Mother of us all. Loving God, in whom is heaven. The hallowing of your name echoes through the universe! The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the earth! Your heavenly will be done by all created beings! Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth. With the bread we need for today, feed us. In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us. In times of temptation and test, spare us. From the grip of all that is evil, free us. For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and forever. Amen.

FROM ‘HUMAN RITES’ BY WARD AND WILD

“Beloved, our Father and Mother, in whom is heaven, hallowed be your name, followed be your royal way, done be your will and rule, throughout the whole creation. With the bread we need for today, feed us. In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us. In times of temptation and test, Strengthen us. From trials too great to endure, spare us. From the grip of all that is evil, free us.  For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, Now and forever. Amen.”

PARKER J. PALMER RETRANSLATION (FROM THE ARAMAIC)

Heavenly Father, heavenly Mother, Holy and blessed is your true name. We pray for your reign of peace to come, We pray that your good will be done, Let heaven and earth become one. Give us this day the bread we need, Give it to those who have none. Let forgiveness flow like a river between us, From each one to each one. Lead us to holy innocence Beyond the evil of our days — Come swiftly Mother, Father, come. For yours is the power and the glory and the mercy: Forever your name is All in One.

MARK BERRY  (EMERGING CHURCH MOVEMENT)

O Breathing Life, your Name shines everywhere! Release a space to plant your Presence here. Imagine your possibilities now. Embody your desire in every light and form. Grow through us this moment’s bread and wisdom. Untie the knots of failure binding us, as we release the strands we hold of others’ faults. Help us not forget our Source, Yet free us from not being in the Present. From you arises every Vision, Power and Song from gathering to gathering. Amen – May our future actions grow from here!

[1] Luke 17:21.

[2] Harper’s Bible Dictionary, p. 576.

[3] http://orvillejenkins.com/words/debts.html  Orville Jenkins is a linguist, musician, and computer specialist.

[4] https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/holy-see-confirms-changes-to-italian-liturgical-translation-of-our-father-gloria-63355

[5] Harper’s Bible Dictionary, p. 26.

© 2019 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC