Texts: an excerpt from “The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord’s Prayer” by John Dominic Crossan * Matthew 6:9-13 (“Our Father . . . “)
Welcome to another spiritual gathering on this cold and beautiful morning in Mill Woods. Welcome to another moment in which we share our spirits in song, prayer, and reflection and in which we seek to merge with the Great Spirit of Love we call God. Welcome to another hour of journeying farther into a new year in which we strive to be a spiritual community where we can explore our purpose and place.
Today is the first of four Sundays that focus on prayer. I am grateful to a discussion at the Future Steps team in December for inspiration for this series. Over four Sundays, I will reflect on The Prayer of Jesus, also known as The Lord’s Prayer and the “Our Father” prayer. We will take a break from this series in two weeks on January 26 when we will join with our Zimbabwean partners for both worship and lunch and again on the second and third Sundays in February when I will be away for a week of study leave followed by a week of vacation.
Prayer is central to our spiritual life and it is also a puzzle for many of us. How we pray takes us to the heart of what we mean by the word God, and so I hope that these four Sundays will help us continue down the path we have traveled over the past several years in trying to become a more expansive and inclusive spiritual community.
Friends, today we also gather in the shadow of the valley of death. There is great sadness here in Edmonton and across Canada that 138 people bound from Iran for Canada were killed on Wednesday. In military terms, the were “collateral damage” to the war-like actions between Iran and the US. To learn that so many young, ambitious, and beautiful people were killed in a senseless military act, and to know that as many as 30 of them were living in Edmonton has been hard for many of us to absorb. So much tragedy, trauma and loss all in one instant, and for what?!
Life is beautiful but short, and it is bedeviled by the waste of past conflicts, past incomprehensions, and past acts of aggression. It is our work as people of faith, to try to heal the wounds of the past, to prevent more traumas, and to work with other people of good will for a world that has renounced terror, war, and stupidity. And so, as we gather in a spirit of Love, we also mourn with our Iranian-Canadian friends, and with people from Iran, Ukraine and other countries whose loved ones also died in Wednesday’s attack. Their loss is our loss. Their dreams are our dreams. Their future is our future.
This morning on CBC’s “Sunday Edition,” host Michael Enright began his broadcast with a Iranian poem from a 13th Century Iranian poet. In English translation, the words of this poem are displayed on a beautiful Persian carpet in the United Nations headquarters in New York City. So, as we prepare for worship, I offer this Persian poem as a prayerful prelude to an hour focused on prayer.
“Children of Adam” by Saadi
All human beings are members of one frame,
Since all, at first, from the same essence came.
When time afflicts one limb with pain
The other limbs at rest cannot remain.
If thou feel not for other’s misery
A human being is no name for thee.
First reading: “The Strangest Prayer”
Prelude from “The Greatest Prayer” by John Dominic Crossan
The Lord’s Prayer is Christianity’s greatest prayer. It is also Christianity’s strangest prayer. It is prayed by all Christians but it never mentions Christ. It is prayed in all churches but it never mentions church. It is prayed on all Sundays but it never mentions Sunday. It is called the “Lord’s Prayer” but it never mentions “Lord.”
It is prayed by fundamentalist Christians but it never mentions the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth, the miracles, the atoning death, and bodily resurrection of Christ. It is prayed by evangelical Christians but it never mentions the evangelium or gospel. It is prayed by Pentecostal Christians but it never mentions ecstasy or the Holy Spirit.
It is prayed by Congregational, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Roman Catholic Christians but it never mentions Congregation, Priest, Bishop, or Pope. It is prayed by Christians who split from one another over this or that doctrine but it never mentions a single one of those doctrines.
It is prayed by Christians who focus on Christ’s substitutionary sacrificial atonement for human sin but it never mentions Christ, substitution, sacrifice, atonement, or sin.
It is prayed by Christians who focus on the next life in heaven or in hell but it never mentions the next life, heaven, or hell. It is prayed by Christians who emphasize what it never mentions and also prayed by Christians who ignore what it does.
You could respond, of course, that there is nothing strange there at all. It is, you might say, a Jewish prayer from the Jewish Jesus, hence nothing Christian is present. But that only invites us to start the question of strangeness all over again for it does not mention Jewish concepts like Covenant or Law, Temple or Torah, Circumcision or Purity, and so on and on and on.
But, what if the Lord’s Prayer is neither a Jewish prayer for Jews nor a Christian prayer for Christians? What if it is—as this book suggests—a prayer from the heart of Judaism on the lips of Christianity for the conscience of the world? What if it is—as this book suggests—a radical manifesto and a hymn of hope for all humanity in language addressed to all the earth?
Second reading: Matthew 6:9-13 (“Our Father . . .”)
Jesus said to his friends, “This is how you are to pray:
‘Abba God in heaven, hallowed be your name!
May your reign come; may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven:
give us today the bread of Tomorrow.
And forgive us our debts, as we hereby forgive those
who are indebted to us.
Don’t put us to the test, but free us from evil.”
Sermon – “How Then Should We Pray?”
Were you surprised by the words of The Lord’s Prayer that Celia just read? It is from a translation of the Bible published 15 years ago by a U.S. Catholic group called “Priests for Equality.” They title their translation “The Inclusive Bible,” and in it they seek non-sexist ways to translate the Hebrew and Greek words of the texts of the Bible into contemporary English.
I had never encountered The Inclusive Bible before I arrived at Mill Woods United six years ago. But it has been the go-to translation here since before I came, and I appreciate the way it avoids gender-specific ways of referring to God and the Sacred.
“The Inclusive Bible” contains other differences. For instance, over the past few years, we have used many different translations of The Prayer of Jesus in our Sunday morning gatherings. This morning we are going to recite a paraphrase by Bob Hetherington, who was a United Church minister who lived in Edmonton until his death five years ago. His version was appreciated by many of us when we used it here in November.
But I have never encountered the phrase usually translated as “give us this day our daily bread” rendered as “give us today the bread of Tomorrow” until Liliana handed me The Inclusive Bible translation on Wednesday. Perhaps if I were a scholar of ancient Greek, I might agree that this translation by the Priests for Equality is a superior one. But not being such a scholar, I merely know that I am intrigued by it.
Today as we begin reflecting on prayer in general and The Lord’s Prayer specifically, I provide some background information.
Although there are four gospel narratives of the life of Jesus in the Bible, only two of them contain The Lord’s Prayer – Matthew and Luke – and their two versions don’t match. We heard the better known one this morning. It is from the sixth chapter of Matthew where it is in the section of his gospel known as “The Sermon on the Mount.” Next week we will hear a shorter version of this prayer from the 11th chapter of Luke. Not only is Luke’s version shorter, it uses the word “sin” in the place where Matthew’s version uses the word “debt”
But neither of these versions of the prayer have the praise-filled ending that is used in most Protestant churches — “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.” The latter phrase is not from the Bible, but from an influential Christian work from the late first or early second century. Called “The Teaching,” this booklet has a version of the Lord’s Prayer that is close to Matthew’s version, but that also includes the “For thine . . . ” ending. The Teaching also contains communion prayers used by early churches and lesson plans to teach newcomers to the church the basics of the Way of Jesus.
“The Lord Prayer” is well-known, but I wonder how far this knowledge still goes. In 2015, I was struck by a front-page headline in “The Edmonton Journal” about a controversy in the small town of Busby that read “Alberta public elementary school debates The Lord’s Prayer in class.” The headline and the article that followed assumed that its readers knew what the phrase “The Lord’s Prayer” meant; and this may have been the case with most of the readers of The Journal. But for the broader population in Edmonton, which includes many young people who have never had a connection to a church, mosque, or temple, and recent immigrants who may be Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Buddhist, or secular, I wonder.
Here at Mill Woods United, as in most churches, we sing or recite The Prayer of Jesus at every Sunday gathering. The main innovation that has been followed at Mill Woods United for the last 20 years is to change the initial phrase “Our Father who art in Heaven” to “Our Father, Our Mother.” This is an attempt to make the prayer less jarring to our ears in what is an anti-sexist community.
Surprising to me, The Inclusive Bible translation does not follow this pattern. Instead of changing “Our Father,” which is the standard translation of the first two words of Matthew’s Greek version into “Our Father, Our Mother,” or “Our Parent,” the Inclusive Bible translation begins the prayer with “Abba God.”
Matthew is written in Greek, but Abba is an untranslated Aramaic word. Most scholars assume that Jesus and his friends did not speak Greek. Instead, they believe that Jesus spoke Aramaic, an ancient language that developed out of Hebrew in the centuries before the birth of Jesus. The Aramaic word “Abba” is usually translated into English as “Father” or “Dad.” By using an Aramaic word, the Priests for Equality connect the prayer that Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount with others of his sayings in which he exclaims “Abba.” One such instance occurs when he prays on the night of his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:36). Their use of Abba instead of Father also masks the gendered nature of The Prayer of Jesus to an English reader of listener.
But regardless of how one translates the first two words of The Prayer of Jesus, what do we think about referring to God as Father? In John Crossan’s book “The Greatest Prayer,” he notes that we can only name God through metaphor. The Bible uses many such metaphors: not only Father, but also Judge, Creator, Ruler, Mother-hen, Eagle, Rock, Provider, Liberator.
In connection to this, Crossan bring up the Moses story from the book Exodus. In chapter three of Exodus, Moses encounters a revelation of God in the form of a bush that burns but is not consumed. When Moses asks God what to call him, God replies, “I Am Who I Am,” or “The Great I Am.” Crossan notes that this is equivalent to God describing God’s-self as unnameable. But then God gives Moses an easier alternative, to tell the Hebrew slaves that he is the God of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the God of tradition and the God who liberates.
Given that whatever comes into our hearts and minds when we say the word “God” is by definition an attempt to name the unnameable, I am OK with using any number of metaphors in association with the word “God.” I prefer “Father” to “King” and “Parent” to “Father.” But such metaphors only work if they remind me that we are trying to refer to that which transcends our small selves. We are utterly dependent on the history of the cosmos and of the earth, on billions of years of biological evolution, on 50,000 years of human culture, and on the lives of our ancestors. If this dependence is captured by the word “Father,” I am OK with that even if I personally prefer phrases like “Ground of Being and Love,” or “Source of Love.” I am OK to begin The Lord’s Prayer with “Our Father,” even as I prefer other approaches.
But this still leaves us with the question of what Jesus actually said. Unfortunately, that is a tough question. We only have the four gospels to go on, and they rarely agree. Further, scholars date the life of Jesus from about the years 5 BCE to the year 30 CE during which time all his utterances would have been in Aramaic. In distinction to this, the gospels were not written until between the years 70 and 100 — that is until 40 to 70 years after Jesus’ life; and they were written in Greek. So, to know what Jesus said when he taught his friends to pray is not just a matter of translating from ancient Greek into a modern language like English but trying to discern the original Aramaic words that might have been spoken by Jesus in the year 30 from the Greek words attributed to him by Mark 40 years later, Matthew 50 years later, Luke 60 years later, and John 70 years later.
My simple solution to this tough problem is to assume that we cannot know with certainty even one word of what Jesus said let alone a whole prayer, sermon, or speech.
For me, the power of the gospels lies not their contradictory details of the life of a great hero and saviour – Jesus of Nazareth. For me, their power is to convey in story form the ability of love, spirit, and grace to survive and thrive in a time in which the forces of justice and love seem to have been defeated and in which worship no longer seems possible. The gospel writers wrote their Greek texts in just such an era between 70 and 100 CE. Their stories helped Jewish people pick up the pieces after the Romans had burned the Holy City Jerusalem to the ground and destroyed Jehovah’s Temple. The power of these stories is partly related to the individual words attributed to Jesus, but it goes well beyond them.
Today, translators like Priests for Equality try to render these cryptic Greek texts into today’s modern languages in an era that seems to have similar characteristics of defeat and impossibility that the Jews encountered almost 2,000 years ago.
Today, we may often feel defeated by the human condition or by social problems, and we may often wonder how we can possibly worship the God who is Love in such strange times. But then we hear again the stories of Jesus and his friends resisting an oppressive empire and finding continued hope for the triumph of love even after their leader is executed, and we too may find paths on which to travel onward.
Did Jesus teach his friends to use the word “sin” or “debts” in his iconic prayer? We cannot know, nor do I think it matters. The power of the Way of Jesus is not found in particular teachings or words but in the entire trajectory of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection. Give how little we know, the gospel stories might have no connection to an actual life of a Jewish peasant healer and leader from Nazareth. But regardless, they convey the power of love to live beyond death and the ability of defeated peasants to continue to gather in opposition to empire and religious misleaders. They show how such seemingly defeated people prayed and reflected upon sacred values of respect, equality, and compassion in the most difficult of circumstances.
When we use The Prayer of Jesus in our communal prayers each week – whether with a traditional or a non-traditional translation — we connect ourselves to the Body of Christ. I hope that this also provides many of us with a moment of ritual that helps to open our hearts and minds to the Sacred.
In the weeks that follow, I will talk more about the implications of this well-known but little understood prayer. I pray that by reflecting more about it, we may reclaim it so that it might continue to inspire our living.
May it be so.