Lord, teach us to pray

I’ve always read Luke 11:1-13 as a two only somewhat related stories.  First, the disciples, jealous that John’s disciples have a prayer they’ve learned from their Rabbi, ask Jesus to teach them to pray, and Jesus gives them the Lord’s Prayer.  Then, sometime later, but within the construct of Luke’s narrative, Jesus tells the parable of the persistent neighbor.  It’s always felt really disjointed to me, as if there was some kind of record scratch in between.

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This reading is probably due to my Episcopalianism.  As a priest in a tradition that is tied heavily to prayers written in a book, my inclination is to hear the disciples asking Jesus for the words to say in prayer, not necessarily how it should happen.  For some reason this morning, however, I read the text as a singular encounter between Jesus and he disciples.  When they ask Jesus to teach them to pray, first he gives them a basic framework of words to use and then he goes on teach them how often they should use them.

Father, hallowed be your name – The prayer begins by addressing God and articulating that God is God.  In the Jewish tradition, this would be in line with Shema which states that the Lord is God and the Lord is one.

Your kingdom come – This is the core message that Jesus came to bring, that the Kingdom of God has come near.  The prayer of Jesus’ disciples, it would follow, should be primarily focused on seeing that come to fruition.

Give us each day our daily bread – The story of the relationship between God and God’s people is one of faith renewed each morning.  As the Hebrews travelled for 40 years in the wilderness, they were given manna, bread from heaven, that was only enough for the day.  If they took any more than that, it would spoil.  As inheritors of that faith tradition, we look only for enough to deal with today, for tomorrow has its own worries.

And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us – Jesus steers clear of the sins/trespasses/debts debate by using two different words here.  We pray for forgiveness of our sins as we attempt to learn what it means to forgive others who we perceive owe us something.  This is the only place in this prayer where we are invited to directly ask God to change us – from those who do not forgive to those who are and can forgive.

And do not bring us to the time of trial – By far the most difficult petition to understand.  Not only do we pray for forgiveness, but we also pray that God might protect us from situations that would lead us into sin.  Maybe, if we are going to take this prayer seriously, we should all delete our Twitter accounts in order to not be led into a time of trial.

What follows then is a parable from Jesus about how often we should pray.  We know that God knows our needs before we ask and our ignorance in asking, so I don’t think that Jesus is saying that God needs us to be pesterful in order for prayers to be answered.  Many a hospital room has been sullied by such bad theology of “if you only prayed harder” or “if you had more faith.”  Rather, if our relationship with God is to develop, we need to approach God in prayer with great regularity, not merely asking for God to fix those things that are in crisis, but above all, asking God for the Holy Spirit to be our advocate and guide.  “How much more willing will your heavenly Father be to give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.”

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The Lord’s Prayer – Good Book Club Week 3

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In partnership with the Good Book Club, this week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE question deals with the lesson that we will read on Saturday (Luke 11:1-13): What do we learn from the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples?

Based on the request of Jesus’ disciples, it was not uncommon for a Rabbi to teach his disciples how to pray.  This makes sense, given that each Rabbi, steeped in the tradition of his school, would have different areas of focus.  The same is true, one might say, of Episcopal priests.  If it is true, and I think it is, that each of us only really has three sermons that we say in different ways, over and over again, then it would follow that our prayers and those we invite from our congregations, would fall in line with those areas of interest.

What do we learn from the prayer that Jesus teaches?  We learn his priorities.  By addressing God as Father, Jesus invites us to pray to one whom we know and who knows us deeply.  We hear echos of his first sermon from the scroll of Isaiah.  The Kingdom of God, that place where the blind see and those who are oppressed are set free, is at hand.  We are reminded that throughout history, God has been faithful, offering the sustenance needed for today, with the call to faith that comes with the promise that tomorrow will be the same.  In asking God that we might be forgiven, we are called to repentance, and by suggesting that we might forgive others, we are being called to follow the example of God’s steadfast love (hesed) and peace (shalom).

Finally, by asking God to save us from the time of trial, as my friend Scott Gunn noted in a piece on the Pope’s suggested edit to the Lord’s Prayer, we are naming our dependence upon God, asking that God might be at work in our lives, steering us clear of those things that would lead us from the path of righteousness.  We are, in effect, asking God for the road map to the Kingdom.

I am often asked why Episcopalians say the same things all the time.  Doesn’t it eventually just get said by rote?  Well, unfortunately, it does, but the same temptation exists in the “Father WeJus” model of prayer.  Rather than getting lost in the saying, the Lord’s Prayer, and others like it, that we say with regularity, invites us to dig deep into its meaning, to understand the words we are saying, and to live into the ramifications of our prayer.  In the Lord’s Prayer, we learn that Kingdom Living is a two way street, God provides us plenty of opportunity and grace, but ultimately, we have a part to play in the work of re-creation.


Blog Force Participant

 

Give us today our [daily] bread

One of the most famous lines ever uttered by Jesus, and my Greek lexicon says, “of doubtful meaning,” how can this be?  Well, it seems that in both versions of the Lord’s Prayer: Luke’s that we will hear on Sunday and Matthew’s that we will pray on Sunday; the word used to describe the type of bread is, wait for it, a hapax legomenon!

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The Greek word “epiousios” is found in both versions, which they probably borrowed from Q or some other shared source, and, at least according to none other than Origen, was not a word used in ordinary speech.  He posits that perhaps one of the evangelists coined the term.  So, if the word for “daily” wasn’t used to mean “daily,” does it make a difference?  And if so, what does it mean?

Thanks to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, I’ve come to know that in the Peshitta Syriac New Testament, the word is translated to mean “necessity.” “Give us the bread of necessity for today.”  In the Curetonian  Gospels, which are also Syriac in origin and perhaps older than the Peshitta, it is translated as “continual.”  The question remains, “does it matter?”  Well, probably not.  In the end, the earliest translations seem to be in line with the more modern “daily.”  Jesus invites us to follow in the footsteps of Israel in the wilderness and to trust God enough only to ask for provision for this day.  Tomorrow’s worries will take care of themselves.  Whether the bread comes to us continually or only according to our necessity, the reality is the gifts of God will come to suit us for today, and today alone.

That’s our prayer, then.  Give me the bread I need for today, and by extension, make be to be content with what I have and not anxious about what is to come.

Father

By the standards of this world, this blog has a pretty meager following.  On any given day, not counting those who read posts in their email box or through an RSS feed, only about 80 or 90 sets of eyes lay upon my words.  As I’ve said, however, this blog is such a part of my own spiritual practice that I would write it even if nobody read it.  Still, it is nice to receive feedback from time to time.  Overnight, one of my parishioners read my blog and offered some thoughts on the opening line of the Lord’s Prayer from her reading of CS Lewis.

“Its very first words are Our Father. Do you now see what those words mean? They mean quite frankly, that you are putting yourself in the place of a son of God. To put it bluntly, you are dressing up as Christ. If you like, you are pretending. Because, of course, the moment you realise what the words mean, you realise that you are not a son of God. You are not being like The Son of God, whose will and interests are at one with those of the Father: you are a bundle of self-centred fears, hopes, greeds, jealousies, and self-conceit, all doomed to death. So that, in a way, this dressing up as Christ is a piece of outrageous cheek. But the odd thing is that He has ordered us to do it.” (From Mere Christianity Compiled in Words to Live By)

I find these words from Lewis to be quite interesting in light of the Apostle Paul who, in his letter to the Romans, suggests an alternative way of looking at our calling God “Father.”  In a lesson that will be very familiar to Episcopalians who attend funerals, Paul suggests that we do not approach God as “Father” or “Abba” of our own volition, but through the power of the Spirit.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

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When Jesus suggests to his disciples that they begin their prayers by addressing God in the same manner he does, it isn’t, I don’t think, about taking on the veil of Christ and thereby being convicted of our own inadequacies.  Rather, to approach God as Father is to come before him with the boldness of faith in the power of the Spirit.  It is to stake our claim as adopted children and co-heirs with Christ.  To begin the prayer of the kingdom by simply calling God “Father” is to embrace our position in the kingdom which should convict us not of our own sinfulness but of our high calling as brother and sister disciples of Jesus and sons and daughters, first-order heirs of God, who are committed to the spread of the kingdom of God throughout the world.

The Lord’s Prayer – Unplugged

This Sunday, we will once again hear a very familiar passage from Luke’s Gospel.  The Lord’s Prayer is, without a doubt, the most familiar prayer in the western world, which is why despite the familiarity of this passage, many will find the Lukan account to be very disconcerting.  Luke’s version of Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray is very different from the Matthean version that we Episcopalians are used to praying on a daily basis.  It is, to use a modern idiom, The Lord’s Prayer Unplugged.

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Still one of the best albums ever recorded.

In fact, the Lukan version is so stripped down from its more familiar Matthean counterpart, that two full pages in Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament are devoted to scribal accretions on the very simple original.  Some of them are familiar.  Some add in “who art in heaven.”  Others needed it to include “on earth, as it is in heaven.”  The most interesting addition is an invocation of the Holy Spirit that seems to come from left field: “Your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us.”  Still, the most likely original version is that which we will hear read on Sunday.

“Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

While it might be interesting in a sermon to play on the differences between the more familiar version from Matthew and Luke’s acoustic rendition, I wonder if it wouldn’t be more helpful to let it sit on its own.  Let the people feel uncomfortable, as if you’d had them read Psalm 23 from something other than the King James Version.  Instead of focusing on what isn’t in Luke’s version, pay careful attention to what is.  As the week goes one, we’ll look more deeply at the particular petitions, but given the context, with Jesus having set his face toward Jerusalem and the urgency of his message that the Kingdom of God being at hand, what are we to learn from this abbreviated teaching on prayer?

Thy Kingdom Come – a Lenten Meditation on the Lord’s Prayer

I taught the second of our four part Lenten series on the Lord’s prayer last week.  Here’s the text.

Good evening.  Welcome to the second week of our four part Lenten series on the Lord’s Prayer.  Last week, we looked at the opening acclamation of the prayer, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.”  Father Keith helped us think about how we approach God both as Abba, our Father, on YHWH, the Great I am, a name so holy that a proper Jew would never speak it.  We looked especially at the story of  Moses at the Burning Bush, where God was both accessible to Moses and yet appeared in the form of fire, a force that must be treated with great reverence.

Tonight we will turn our attention to the second portion of the prayer.  If you’ll recall, Keith noted that the Lord’s Prayer follows a somewhat modified A.C.T.S format: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.  Tonight’s section, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” falls under confession.  Simply in saying these words, we know that they are not yet true.  The kingdom of God is not yet fully realized here on earth.  We are not living out the will of God every moment of every day.  That’s why we have to pray for it, and we do, we pray earnestly that God’s kingdom would come, but ultimately, the responsibility for the building the kingdom of God falls on us.  When God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, then we will see fully what the kingdom is like.

Saint Theresa of Avila, a 16th century nun and mystic is credited with writing a poem called, “Christ has no body.”  In that poem, she reminds us that since the Ascension, the disciples of Jesus carry the responsibility of the kingdom.

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

compassion on this world.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Thy kingdom come Lord.  Thy will be done.  Help me to do it.  Of course, we know all too well that discerning God’s will is much easier said than done.  Even when we turn to the Gospels, Jesus doesn’t give us much help.  More often than not, when Jesus talks about the kingdom, he does it in veiled stories called parables.  When he was asked why he taught in parables, Jesus said, “Because the kingdom of God is so hard to understand.”  For thousands of years, the seeds of the Kingdom have been planted.  Through a bow in the clouds, God established a covenant with Noah and planted a seed.  Through the promise of a son, God established a covenant with Abraham and planted a seed.  Through the promise of an Exodus from Egypt, God establishes a covenant with Moses and planted a seed.  Prophets came and reminded the people that for the kingdom to grow into full blossom, the people of God had to water and care for it.  Holy people throughout the ages fertilized the kingdom through their prayers and compassion.  Faithful people have tilled the ground, studied the scriptures, and longed for the kingdom to come.  And then Jesus came along, the kingdom of God personified, and told people stories about the seeds that had been planted.[1]

“[The Kingdom of God] is like a tiny mustard seed planted in a garden; it grows and becomes a tree, and the birds come and find shelter among its branches.”  Most of us have absolutely no concept of a mustard tree.  You might know mustard seeds, if you’re sort of foodies and like to make Indian food or maybe you’ve probably seen them ground up in a Grey Poupon jar, but most people have no concept of what happens between mustard seed and the French’s yellow mustard that ends up on their hotdog.  Of course, Jesus’ crowd knew about mustard seeds.  Mustard plants grew wild in Palestine; they were the kudzu of their time.  When Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed, he tells the people that after thousands of years of seed planting, the kingdom of God is getting ready to run amuck.  As we hear that parable two thousand years later, there is evidence all around that the kingdom is growing, spreading, and in some cases even flourishing, even while in some places it is being choked out by fear, anger, and just plain ignorance.

The kingdom of God is here.  Growth has begun and continues every time a disciple of Jesus chooses to follow the will of God.  The kingdom is fertilized by acts of care and compassion.  The kingdom of God grows with love.  The kingdom of God comes when God’s will is done.  So what does that look like?  Like I said, it can be confusing.  Seminary was really hard for me.  My eyes were opened to all sorts of new and scary things.  By the time my first year was coming to an end, I was seriously considering dropping out.  I had a great safety net.   I could always go back and work for my father-in-law.  Doug is a good Christian man who runs his company on good Christian principles.  Surely I could fulfill the will of God by working for him.  Yet, God had so clearly called me to be a priest.  As a preacher and teacher I could share God’s will with others so easily.  Surely staying in seminary was God’s will for me.  They couldn’t both be God’s will, but they both sure felt like it. I finally realized that God’s will for me wasn’t about what job I had or what food I ate or what socks I wore.  God’s will for me is the same as God’s will for the whole world, to be restored to right relationship.  God’s will for me was to love him and love my neighbor as myself.  I could fulfill God’s will while working for Thomas Construction or as an ordained minister, the details didn’t matter, the way in which I lived did.

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”  Each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we confess that the world is not yet the way God intended it to be.  Each time, we invite God to open our eyes to the ways we can fulfill his will in our lives: to help us find ways to be his hands and his feet.  Each time, we repeat the hope of generations of disciples who have come before us that the kingdom of God might come in fullness.  Each time, we affirm our faith in the God who can set all things right, make all things new, and restore all things to the fullness of his good and perfect will.

[1] N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone Part 1, p. 161.