Yesterday Kerry and I went to the movies with our friends Jonna and Ethan, who are visiting us from the Twin Cities. The thought was to go during the hottest part of the day, to take advantage of the air-conditioning. Apparently half the city was sharing our thought. The place was packed with families, couples, friends and even summer campers. We saw a group of maybe thirty high school aged students wearing their matching yellow summer camp t-shirts – clearly a college-prep kind of camp – and it took me back to all the summer schools I’ve even been a student or a teacher in.
It’s been kind of a summer school season here at St. Luke’s as well, both inside and outside of worship. We all agree that this first year of the Boulevard Bash was a huge learning experience for our congregation, and we’ll take those learnings into next year with us. Tuesday nights through the end of June saw a small group of five or so of us meeting in the Lesher Lounge for a couple of hours to talk about progressive Christian theology using a curriculum called “Living the Questions,” a name taken from the poet Rilke’s famous “Letters to a Young Poet.” Every other Thursday night, the young women’s spirituality group has been reading through Teresa of Avila’s “The Interior Castle,” a spiritual classic from the 16th century on prayer as the path to intimacy with God. Beginning last week, Scott Shippy and I have been meeting before worship to discuss a book by my former professor of New Testament, Luke Timothy Johnson, on the history and theology of the creeds. Beginning today, after worship, the group of folk preparing to become new members will meet in Haberland Hall for a light lunch and discussion about what distinguishes us as Lutherans within the larger family of Christian faith. And, finally, there is the work we’ve been doing in worship this summer, replacing the traditional Nicene and Apostolic creeds with other affirmations of faith and considering the principles for worship that structure our weekly gathering. We are holding our own mini-summer school right here.
Today’s gospel reading from Luke fits right in then with our continuing education program. If we were publishing a course catalogue, we might file it under “spiritual disciplines 101 – an introduction to prayer.” In this passage we hear Jesus instructing his followers, and us, how to pray and what to pray for.
The first thing to notice, I think, is that Jesus teaches the disciples to pray because they ask him to – and they ask him to because they observe him doing it. A lot of prayer is like that, a form of mimicry that grows into an authentic conversation with God. When I was a boy I used to marvel at how easily my father could just stand up and pray. He’s like a jazz pianist in the world of prayer. He can weave themes and counterpoints together in an off-the-cuff prayer that make you think he’s got notes scribbled on the back of his hand. I grew up watching him do that, and because I saw him praying like that, I was willing to try and pray like that as well. I bet your prayers, or your difficulty with prayer, comes from a similar place. We learn by watching, so it’s important for our children to see us praying. This is how the disciples learned as well.
The next thing that strikes us about the prayer of Jesus is that he teaches them to pray as part of a community. We pray, our father – not my father. We pray give us, forgive us – not give me, forgive me. This has always been difficult for we humans, who love to pretend that somehow each of us lives and dies on our own; that we are each in control of our own lives, and unencumbered by each other; that our successes are solely ours, and your failures are solely yours; but it is, perhaps, especially difficult for we modern, Western Christians living in consumer societies, because we are constantly being taught that the goal of life is to be unique, to stand out, to rise above – and that the way to accomplish this is by acquiring the right set of belongings that can distinguish us from others. In a world like ours, praying our father means making a claim to be related to people from whom we have been conditioned to disassociate ourselves. The same thing happens when we begin our creeds “We believe in one God…”, and Luke Timothy Johnson’s observations about the counter-cultural quality of the creeds thus applies to the prayer of Jesus as well. He writes,
In a world that celebrates individuality, [we] are actually doing something together. In an age that avoids commitment, [we] pledge [ourselves] to a set of convictions and thereby to each other. In a culture that rewards novelty and creativity, [we] use words written by others long ago. In a society where accepted wisdom changes by the minute, [we] claim that some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again. In a throwaway, consumerist world, [we] accept, preserve, and continue tradition. Reciting the creed [and I would add, reciting the prayer of Jesus] at worship is thus a counter-cultural act. (The Creed, 40-41)
But just we notice that we pray together, “our Father,” we are led to wonder – especially in our society that has been bringing issues of gender and power to consciousness over the last century – what does it mean to name God as “father.” Turn to the inside back cover of your bulletin with me for a minute, to the page we use for studying the principles that guide our worship. For the last couple of months, we’ve been reading from a set of principles about “God and the Language of Worship.” Beginning last week though, we began a new set of principles, these all being about “Scripture and the Language of Worship.” The first principle in this section, “Scripture is proclaimed,” had so many background elements and applications that we had to split it over two weeks. Look at Background L-7E and L-7F with me. The first one says,
Since the first decades of the church, Christians have been translating their vocabulary and imagery from one language to another. One of Martin Luther’s primary tasks was the translation of the Bible into the vernacular. Christians continue to translate the Bible into various languages.
Martin Luther’s commitment to the vernacular is one of the great hallmarks of his ministry, and one of the radical changes that the Protestant Reformation brought to Christianity. I
n his day, people would go to mass and the entire thing would be performed before the assembly in Latin, meaning that people had very little idea what was being said at all. Luther insisted, and we must insist, that the language used in worship be matched with the context of the people gathered for worship. This not only means speaking the language of the people, but choosing language that speaks to the people.
The next principle reads,
Translation from one language to another always involves some degree of interpretation and cultural adaptation. For example, the English word love is used to translate at least three different Greek words, and the abba of Jesus’ native tongue (Aramaic) is not precisely the same as the Greek pater or the English father. No translation is perfect or perfectly accurate.
It doesn’t take much thought to realize that if we take this principle for worship seriously, then an uncritical belief in scripture as the inerrant, inspired word of God is difficult to maintain. And, in fact, our denomination does not take the position of biblical literalism. Instead we say that the Bible is “the written Word of God. It creates and nurtures faith through the work of the Holy Spirit and points us to Jesus Christ, the living Word and center of our faith. And in reading the Bible, we are invited into a relationship with God that both challenges us and promises us new life.”
That brings us back to the question of God’s fatherhood, and questions about how the words Jesus may have used relate to the words we have often used. Desmond Tutu used to remind us that when Jesus prayed “abba,” father, it might better be translated “daddy.” It is a ancient word that was used, among others, by children for expressing intimacy with a parent. It’s counterpart was amma, mother. You can hear the child-speak in these words, that are among the first a child will learn to speak. Abba abba abba. Amma amma amma.
Take, by contrast, the Greek word this got translated into: Pater. Pater is the father, but pater is also the head of the household, the one who hold power, the one in charge. We carried both meanings into the English word, father, but we have probably also, inadvertently, imported all the broken and sinful ways that men’s power has been privileged over women’s power, both inside and outside the home. The ideas and experiences that are evoked when we pray “Our Father, who art in heaven…” may be a far cry from the loving, tender, dependency of an infant in the presence of its mother and father carried in the word Jesus used when he prayer, abba. Our Lutheran commitment to the vernacular demands of us that we look closely at our words, and our context, and that we find a way to proclaim good news to all people in words that can be received as such.
Having noticed that we pray together as a community, not just as individuals, and that we pray to a God who is as close to us as a loving parent is to a child just learning to speak, we proceed to the topic of what we are to pray for. Notice how short this part of the prayer actually is:
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.
That’s it. Not even an, “for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.” – which was added by the Protestants as a dig at the Roman church a millennium and a half later, just to clarify who we thought to be in charge of Christ’s church. Just this – to give us what we need for today, to forgive us as we forgive others, and to protect us from trials and tribulations. But within those petitions, a spirituality it takes an entire lifetime to live into.
“Give us today our daily bread.” Books have been written on just these six words, but the essence of this petition, in my mind, is twofold. First, it acknowledges that God is the source of every blessing. Immediately our mind races to our capitalist training, “but wait,” our mind cried out, “I’ve worked hard for what I have. I earned it. It is mine.” But the prayer of Jesus keeps pushing at our materially addicted souls, “but where did it come from?” The wealth produced by all your work, where did it come from? How was it generated? What was bought? What was sold? How much labor by how many people? How were they treated? What are they eating tonight?
This is the essence of the second insight in this petition. We are taught to pray for our daily bread. Not enough bread to store up against future deprivation. Not enough bread so that we never need to worry again, but our daily bread. Enough for us, so that there is enough for others. “Give us today our daily bread,” teaches us to acknowledge that all our bread, and all our wealth, comes from God – so we must not take more than our share, or leave others without their required share.
The next petition proceeds directly from this one, “and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” We were taught to ask only for our daily bread, but we have not fully learned that lesson. We have desired more than our daily portion, and we have often taken it, and this has meant that others have gone without their daily portion. Our lives are bound up with each other that closely, but we have invented political and economic systems so vast and complex that we can hide from that basic truth. We can bundle and trade the hunger of our neighbor so that debt is owned by nations, and relief is sold at a price.
The prayer of Jesus has been translated and taught in different ways, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” and also “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” but they’re all so closely tied together. We hold people’s debts against them, but we hope that our own sin will be forgiven. It doesn’t work like that though. It’s not that God’s forgiveness is conditional. It’s not that God won’t forgive us until we forgive others. It is more honestly that we struggle to accept the reality of our accepted-ness, as long as we hold tightly to our judgments of each other. We are already forgiven for our failings, but we cannot allow that grace, that truth, to enter deeply and to heal fully until we practice forgiving one another. And as we practice this forgiveness with each other, we then care less about the debts we are owed, and we care more about the wellbeing of the other, and we want to be sure that they have their daily bread as well.
“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” That’s the way many of us learned the last petition of the Lord’s Prayer. That’s the way it’s translated in the 1928 Prayer Book of the Episcopal Church USA, which most of us grew up thinking was straight out of the bible. But you see in the gospel for this morning that the most accurate translation of the prayer into today’s vernacular reads, “and do not bring us to the time of trial.”
This is a more useful translation, in my mind. We focus less on temptation and evil, and more on the notion of transgression and trials. One of the things Lutherans speak often of is the law, its uses and its functions. It’s one of the topics of our new member class this morning, law and gospel as the basic vocabulary of Lutheran theology and Christian faith. We like to tell stories about our lives that cast us as the heroes, the ones who get things right. In reality, we know that we so often fall short, not only of the expectations others have of us, but of the expectations we lay on ourselves. We judge ourselves with a law so strict it leaves no room for grace. Consider the pain you have endured just as a consequence of your own dissatisfaction with yourself. Remember how hard you can be on yourself when you look in the mirror, when you compare yourself to your
peers, when you hear your voice on the phone, or talking to your partner, or your children. Who would ever want to be seen and judged on the basis of that experience. Do not bring us to the time of trial. Do not judge us as harshly as we have judged ourselves or each other.
That is the where the prayer of Jesus leaves us, reminded of our need for grace, of our longing for love that sees us as we are and loves us into more gracious ways of being. We pray it together because we share this life with each other. We pray to our abba, our loving parent, who we might as easily call our momma, or our pappy, or whatever other name reminds us that God wants to feed us and all our brothers and sisters, that God wants to forgive us and all our brothers and sisters, that God wants to judge us with the same judgment God has for all our sisters and brothers. And the judgment is this – I love you. You are mine. All of you. Class dismissed.