Homily for Pentecost 11, July 28, 2013
“LORD, TEACH US TO PRAY”
PATER HEMON HO EN TOIS OURANOIS HAGIASTHETO TO ONOMA SOU;
ELTHETO HE BASILIEIA SOU;
GENETHETO TO ELEMA SOU
HOS EN OURANO KAI EPI TES GES
TON ARTON HEMON TON EPIOUSION DIDOU HEMIN TO KATH HEMERAN
KAI APHES HEMIN TAS HAMARTIAS HEMON KAI GAR AUTOI APHIEMEN
PANTI OPHEILONTI HEMIN KAI ME EISENEGKES
HEMAS EIS PEIRASMON ALLA RUSAI HEMAS APO TOU PONEROU
This is the Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer from the (phonetic) Greek in which the New Testament was written. An Aramaic (also phonetic) version – the language spoken by Jesus — is even more foreign-sounding:
(Our father who is in heaven.)
(May your name be holy.)
(May your kingdom come.)
(May your will be [done])
(As it is in heaven)
(Also [be] on the earth)
Hav lan lakhma
(Give us bread)
(That we need today)
Ushvuq lan khaybeyn
(And forgive our sins)
Aykana d’af khnan
(Also as we)
(Have forgiven sinners)
U’la te`lan l-nisyouna
(And don’t lead us into danger.)
Ela patsan men bisha
(But deliver us from evil)
And, just in case you want to hear the version the Church has used for about 1500 years …
Pater Noster, qui es in caelis,
Sanctificetur nomen tuum.
Adveniat regnum tuum,
Fiat voluntas tua,
sicut in caelo, et in terra.
Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie,
Et dimitte nobis debita nostra,
sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris.
Et ne nos inducas in tentationem,
Sed libera nos a malo.
That is the Latin version and there are many who think it is still the definitive version of the prayer. Long before we had the translation that we came to know as the King James Version of the Lord’s Prayer, there were many other versions. The Aramaic version is actually more of a Syriac version, because the original Aramaic, apart from the word Abba, is likely never to be found. As we look at present-day Syria, it’s hard to imagine that once it was a hotbed of Christian life. In any case, exactly what Jesus said has been long since lost. Even within the New Testament, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke have different versions of the prayer. Significant though it may be, only Luke and Matthew mention it at all – it was not noted by the other two Gospels, nor does St Paul make reference to it. There is no definitive translation of the Lord’s Prayer – it probably represents the gist of what Jesus taught about how we should address ourselves to God, rather than as a set prayer anyway.
We are led to believe from the text that all these versions are rooted in an original dialogue between Jesus and his disciples. The dialogue came about, according to Luke, because the disciples saw him praying and they were impressed by what they saw – his demeanor, his sense of serenity, his depth – perhaps by a sense of how dynamic and empowered he seemed to be after praying.
The disciples in looking at Jesus after he had been in prayer may have seen something like the early Israelites did when they saw Moses come down from the mountain, who was described as having a face that was glowing. The Transfiguration of Christ may describe a similar moment.
What do people see in you? Do they see something compelling – something beautiful – something intensely inspiring? Do they associate that with your relationship with God?
When you are passionate about something, others are drawn to it – they want to know how to get it — like the older woman in the deli in the movie When Harry Met Sally, who said: “I’ll have what she’s having” — the disciples saw in Jesus something that was powerful and fulfilling. They wanted what he had. They wanted to be like him. So they asked him, and he taught them how to pray.
The Our Father or Lord’s Prayer contains all the major themes of Jesus’ teaching and life — a relational familiarity with God; the sovereignty of God and the nearness of the Kingdom; submission to God’s will; reconciliation and forgiveness; the Eucharist; the confrontation with evil.
Jesus didn’t just give his disciples a prayer – he taught them about prayer – he gave them a way to address themselves to God and certain essential things to pray about. He gave them a framework of major spiritual themes and concepts from which to build a meaningful prayer life. And he taught them how it was to be applied – how it related to everyday living.
His approach to prayer is reflected in the second part of today’s Gospel: in the image of a man stumbling about in the middle of the night, desperate to find a way to accommodate unexpected guests. Is the reference to a situation unfolding in the middle of the night a symbol for the dark night of the soul? It’s always fun to speculate.
As Jesus points out: Ask — Seek/search – — Knock — the door will be opened. He points to the persistence required in prayer, the determination needed to get through. The ordinary avenues of prayer don’t work sometimes – we have all experienced those moments when the door is locked, so we need to be creative as well as persistent. But we realize from this Gospel that we are to act as though God is personal – that there IS someone on the other side of the door.
The symbol of the doorway or portal is common to many spiritual traditions (Jesus used it numerous times) as is the importance of finding a way in (or out, as the case may be). An ancient prayer says “the Lord protect your going out and your coming in.”
Entering the door to come into church and going out the door into the world afterward are two distinct actions with different meanings. Entering the solitude of your own room with the intention of communicating with God means that you will come out of your room a different person. Doors symbolize hope, opportunity, a transition or shift from one state of being to another — entrance to new life. Christ is described as a door, and also described as a key. The final great New Testament symbol of the door is Jesus standing at the door knocking – appealing to us to open the door and invite him in.
Prayer is the living connection between us and God. Prayer animates that relationship the way conversation animates any relationship. Anglicans have tended toward a “by the book” approach, but prayer is less about precisely formulated words than about trying to do something about that persistent longing in our souls which only God can relieve. We have traditionally placed a lot of reliance on set prayers, and taken an overly rational approach to spiritual life, and we must know that reading a prayer or reading through a service is not really the same as praying. Prayer, like conversation has to be at least somewhat spontaneous. As Mahatma Gandhi said: “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”
“Learn how to ask” Jesus seems to be saying. Prayer is so often misunderstood, and misused. The Letter of James suggests we are often likely to experience futility in prayer because we aren’t seeking the right things, because prayer can easily be seen as a heavenly slot machine, a divine lottery — in magical and selfish terms by people who want divine power but none of God’s direction or character.
And it is that growing into the image of God – becoming like God — that is at the heart of prayer. It involves growing into the person we were created to be – growing toward the ideals and inner heart of who we truly are. As someone said, Prayer does not change God – it changes us.
We need the resource of prayer especially to get through tough times, because at such times we need to connect more deeply and access more profound resources, as the familiar ways fails us. Martin Luther said: “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”
Ask … Seek . . . Knock . . . Many people today are seeking much more depth in their spiritual life than what the Church has been used to offering. People are searching for spiritual practices – they are seeking ways to experience the divine. This is something we need to make a priority so that indeed we are opening the door to people rather than keeping it shut.
So do we teach people to pray? By and large, No, not really. And yet, if you ask most Christians whether they feel their prayer life is effective or meaningful, usually they say No – it isn’t. Often, if you ask how much or how often they pray, they will respond that it is very minimal or token – not really a driving force in their day – usually involving the use of some set prayer(s) which they recite by rote. Yet, small wonder, if they don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing in the first place – our approach is akin to sending them to some foreign place without any idea how to speak the language and hoping they’ll manage.
One of the first things present in today’s readings is the fact that the disciples had a mentor – someone whose example they could emulate, someone who would teach and refine their efforts, someone they could ask when struggling. Did you learn how to swim by being dropped over the side of a boat into deep water? Typically not. We need to be mentored, guided, encouraged, and warned when we are in over our head.
St Paul said to the early Church that he served as an example in a variety of ways – aware that the people need someone to emulate (e.g. Phil. 3:17), a personal role model . In today’s reading from Colossians, St Paul says: “As you have received … just as you were taught . . .” and speaks of their becoming “established in the faith” – all of which points to the fact of an initiation process – that by then the Church already had methods of mentoring people into a relationship with God through Christ.
It’s often been said that clergy typically have more books on prayer on their shelves than anything else, because that is what they intend to pay attention to, but the reality is that it is often the thing we give the least attention, as other pressures build and make demands on our time and energy. Also, a lot of our theology doesn’t really lend itself to a lively prayer life, because it has made God seem less personal and present, and more remote and unknowable.
We pray so we may know who God is, and develop and deepen the relationship. We pray so that we may align ourselves with God’s purposes in the world. In our time, we are people of convenience, and we want things to happen instantaneously. People often want formulas and guaranteed results but when you’re talking about a relationship that isn’t how it works. Maybe that’s why Jesus begins his prayer by referring to God as Abba – Father – which reminds us that it’s personal – it’s about learning to relate. “Prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God,” as Teresa of Avila said, and yet she acknowledged that being God’s friend wasn’t necessarily going to be an easy thing to do.
Prayer is really at the heart of any meaningful spiritual life. We need to make prayer much more of a priority, not just so that we may see great things happen, but that we may align ourselves more faithfully with the direction and purpose of God in the world.
The Lord’s Prayer remains central to Christian spirituality – it is always at the heart of any act of Christian worship, and central to other Christian spiritual practices like the Rosary.
We continue to explore and unfold the meaning of this great prayer or method of prayer. We need to learn how to have conversations with God, and try to discern what the kingdom might look like or what it means for God’s will to be done, or to whom I need to be reconciled, or who is going hungry. We need to find our own voice with God, and learn to be present to the language God speaks. Certainly it’s not Aramaic nor is it King James English. As some have suggested, silence is the language of God. But you could say that the language of God is beauty; you could say that the language of God is love; you could say that the language of God is life itself. So to begin it is often as simple as going into your room and closing the door and being persistent in the silence, in the darkness, in the unknowing – yearning, and listening, and hoping that indeed the “door” will be opened to you as well.
RCL-appointed readings for this Sunday:
Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19) As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,
and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it. Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.
Luke 11:1-13 He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: 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.” And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
This section of Luke’s Gospel seems to show us the need for a dynamic relationship between action and prayer – we have the Good Samaritan story followed by the tension between Mary the contemplative and Martha the activist; now there is this episode of Jesus praying, and then teaching the disciples the Lord’s Prayer followed again by action in confronting the evils of the world. To quote one of my favourite phrases (yet again): “Action without prayer is presumption; prayer without action is hypocrisy.”
Jesus said – don’t waste a lot of words, using the bad example of the Pharisees who had turned prayer into public spectacle – a way of gaining approval and attention and status. “Go into your room and shut the door” And he might have said, “and the door will be opened unto you.”
Cf Eugene Peterson in The Message translation:
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.”
Jesus never meant us to rattle through this prayer as though completing amounts to some kind of magical fix.
Martin Luther said, “The fewer the words, the better the prayer.” For example, Luther suggested in approaching the Lord’s Prayer that you might become completely tuned in to a single word of it – like the word “Our” at the beginning – and stay with that word for an hour.
In the Eastern traditions, like Buddhism and Hinduism, people are mentored by gurus, teachers. That apprenticeship may take many years – but like anything else remains the best way for people to genuinely integrate what they are trying to learn.